Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Pressure mounts on Bahrain as hunger striker reaches 62nd day

Bahrain has been trumpeting its return to normalcy ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix that begins April 20. But now there is increasing pressure to cancel the car race.

In most countries, the supercharged Formula One (F1) car-racing circuit is marked by decadent celebrations, high-profile guests, and hundreds of millions of dollars of international investment.

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Bahrain missed out last year, when its plans to host the event were canceled after dozens of Arab Spring protesters were killed in clashes with security forces.
The tiny Gulf kingdom was determined not to miss out a second time, and declared ahead of this year?s April 20-22 event that all is back to normal. The country?s slogan, ?UniF1ed? ? united behind the F1 race, was draped on banners lining skyscrapers, highways, and shopping malls.

But activists are trying to leverage the event to garner international support for their campaign for greater rights, particularly for the country's downtrodden Shiite majority. Amid persistent abuses and the increasingly desperate hunger strike of prominent human rights activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, speculation is growing? that the race may be cancelled again.

For weeks leading up to the race, youths have gathered in the late afternoon in Shiite villages such as Abu Saiba to protest the event. Young men block the roads with debris, march through the streets until the security forces moved in by foot, and then retreat as tear gas rains down. Abaya-clad women scribble anti-F1 messages on the scarves they used to block tear gas from entering their mouths.

?We don?t want the F1 to be in Bahrain until the government respects human rights,? says Said Yousif, a leader at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) who sees the event as a way to give undeserved legitimacy to the government. Youths use even more blunt language.

This is the true race in Bahrain: A contest between two very different ideas about where the country stands 14 months after protests first broke out. To activists and much of the Shiite population, political change has been denied and delayed, but is still worth fighting for.

But to the government and an increasingly political group of Sunnis who have traditionally been loyal to the regime, Formula One is a sign that the troubles of 2011 are over. "Formula One [is one effort] bringing Bahrain back to life,? says Sawsan Al-Shaer, a columnist who says the protests have degenerated to a few radicals. ?Before 2011, this was Bahrain. Now, we are [once again] back in Bahrain.?

The stakes aren't just about perception. The grinding conflict stands to set this developed country back for years. Investment has essentially halted amid the political uncertainty, say businessmen, who note that no data exist on just how bad things are. The political rhetoric and the clashes on the streets are also hardening, with hundreds injured, dozens dead, and untold numbers who have been arrested or traumatized. That instability is far from welcome in a country situated at the heart of global geopolitical tension: just off the coast of Saudi Arabia, across the Persian Gulf from Iran, and home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.

Government supporters and several Sunni opposition groups date the end of the country's unrest to Nov. 23, when well-respected Egyptian Human Rights lawyer M. Cherif Bassiouni presented the findings of a government-commissioned Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) regarding the abuses that took place that year. The report was widely lauded for its extensive documentation of systematic abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and arbitrary arrest.

On March 25, a government-appointed follow-up committee reported on its first steps toward implementing the recommendations ? which many Sunnis saw as a sufficient concession to the protesters.

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