13 Apr 2012

Bahrain grand prix ‘to go ahead’, despite opposition

Formula 1’s governing body says Bahrain’s grand prix will take place on 22 April, despite continuing protests against the kingdom’s ruling Sunni monarchy for its repression of opposition.

The FIA said it was “satisfied that all the proper security measures are in place for the running of a Formula One World Championship event in Bahrain. Therefore, the FIA confirms that the 2012 Gulf Air F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain will go ahead as scheduled.”

In Bahrain, nightly clashes between protesters and government forces continue in the mainly Shia villages, where demonstrators are calling for the race to be cancelled and demanding the release of activist Abdulhadi Khawaja, who is on day 65 of a hunger strike.

In an interview with Channel 4 News, Bahraini government spokesman Sheik Abdulaziz Bin Mubarak Al Khalifa said Mr Khawaja was being given the best health care 24 hours a day. But he added: “We are prepared to see justice served and we respect his decision to take this stand.”

The spokesman said Bahrain was “safe”, but there were “pockets of violence” in some parts of the country.

F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone had already signalled that the race would proceed as scheduled.

Speaking after a meeting with team principals at the Chinese grand prix, he said: “The only people that can do anything about it is the national sporting authority in the country that can ask for it to be withdrawn from the calendar.

“Unless it gets withdrawn by the national sporting authority in the country, then we’ll be there.”

‘Massive decisions to be made’

But the prospect of the event going ahead in a kingdom where daily protests against the minority Sunni-led government continue in Shia towns and villages has prompted opposition inside and outside the country.

Although he today expressed his full support for the grand prix, 1996 Formula One world champion Damon Hill last weekend voiced misgivings about the race because he thought the situation in Bahrain was “hotting up”.

Clearly there are some massive decisions to be made. Mark Webber, Red Bull driver

And the Australian Red Bull driver Mark Webber has admitted to concerns about the grand prix going ahead. “Clearly there are some massive decisions to be made,” he said.

“There is no beating about the bush: it is sensitive out there. We get lots of viewpoints from there, both sides. I get constantly reminded on Twitter.”

Other F1 drivers, including Britons Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, have said they will follow whatever decision the FIA takes. Hamilton and Button both drive for the McLaren team, which is 42 per cent owned by Mumtalakat, Bahrain’s soverign wealth fund.

‘Bloody regime’

Earlier this month a youth opposition movement inside Bahrain issued a warning to those attending the Bahrain race that it would not be able to “ensure the safety” of participants.

The February 14 Youth coalition said the organisers would be regarded as part of the ruling family’s “bloody regime, responsible for shedding the blood of the sons of Bahrain”.

The political, security and human rights context in Bahrain all military against this high-profile, profitable event going ahead. Index on Censorship

No-one has admitted responsibility for an explosion which shook Manama, Bahrain’s capital, on Thursday night, damaging two cars.

“A loud explosion was heard in an open area, and two cars were found to have been slightly damaged,” Bahrain’s Interior Ministry said in a post on Twitter.

A Facebook page entitled “Pearl Family Circle – Martyrs’ Square” includes pictures of Bernie Ecclestone’s image being burnt, underlining the fact that it would take just one attack on a person connected with the FI event for it to be cancelled

Not ‘business as usual’

Index on Censorship, which campaigns for freedom of expression across the world, has criticised the country’s rulers for repressing its political opponents.

“We would agreed that the political, security and human rights context in Bahrain today all militate against this high-profile, profitable business and sporting event going ahead in a ‘business as usual’ way,” Dr Kirsty Hughes, IoC’s chief executive, said in a letter to the Financial Times today.

Last year’s Bahrain grand prix was delayed, and then cancelled, not long after the climax of the February-March revolt by mainly Shia pro-democracy demonstrators demanding more say in government and better access to jobs and housing.

More than 30 people died in the revolt, which the kingdom’s monarchy crushed with the help of security forces from Saudi Arabia.