20 Apr 2012

Protesters clash with police in Bahrain as F1 begins

As demonstrators clash with police in Bahrain in the run-up to the grand prix, a government spokesman denies to Channel 4 News that protesters have been tortured or mistreated.

The protesters – from the majority Shi’ite community – assembled in the Budaiya area near Manama. They say they feel sidelined by a Sunni-controlled ruling elite.

Hundreds of demonstrators broke away from Friday’s march and made their way towards the main highway in the direction of Pearl Roundabout, the initial focus of Bahrain’s protest movement when the uprising first began in February 2011.

Clashes ensued when police stopped them. Masked youths hurled petrol bombs at the police, who used tear gas and sound bombs against them.

“They are trying to go to Pearl Square, police are firing tear gas and sound bombs. I can see hundreds, they are still fighting,” said activist Sayed Yousif al-Muhafda by telephone.

I’m sure you’d agree that the most liberal of western democracies would draw the line at the violent assault of policemen. Fahad Al-Binali, Bahrain Information Affairs Authority

Right to protest

Questioned by Channel 4 News about claims that protesters had been beaten, shot and threatened with rape, Fahad Al-Binali, of the Bahrain Information Affairs Authority, said: “We deny any allegation of torture or mistreatment.”

Mr Al-Binali was also asked about allegations that there had been 100 arrests and 50 people injured in the last week. He said: “The right to protest is guaranteed in the constitution. Nobody in Bahrain will be arrested simply for protesting.

“However, I’m sure you’ve seen the footage of what some might call protesters assaulting police officers with Molotov cocktails …. I’m sure you’d agree that the most liberal of western democracies would draw the line at the violent assault of policemen.”

Protesters said they felt the grand prix was ill-timed but speaking to the media, Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman said: “I think cancelling the race just empowers extremists.

“For those of us trying to navigate a way out of this political problem, having the race allows us to build bridges across communities, to get people working together. It allows us to celebrate our nation. It is an idea that is positive, not one that is divisive.”

The government and F1 organisers insist the race will go ahead and have tightened security, with police stationed on roads linking the capital to the Bahrain International Circuit.

Read more: Human rights crisis in Bahrain 'not over'
Opposition activists are vowing to mark the Grand Prix with

Downing Street ‘concerned’

But there are increasing calls for the race to be cancelled amid escalating protests by anti-government activists and reports of the regime’s crackdown on demonstrators.

Labour leader Ed Miliband urged David Cameron to add his voice to calls for the cancellation of the grand prix.

Mr Miliband said that it would send out the wrong signal for the Formula 1 motor race to go ahead on Sunday at a time of concern over human rights abuses in the Gulf state.

Downing Street said the government remained “concerned” about the violence in Bahrain, but refused to be drawn on whether the race should go ahead.

“It is not for us to dictate what sporting events happen in other countries,” a No 10 spokeswoman said.

In a recent report, Amnesty International said human rights violations are continuing in the Gulf state despite government promises that the country is on the road to reform and added that security forces were still using excessive force against anti-government protesters.