Bahrain: In the kingdom of tear gas

Gregg Carlstrom writes: The talk of Bahrain at present is talk — the possible renewal of dialogue between the government and the opposition — but the reality is that street protests, after simmering in outlying villages for months, have begun to heat up in the capital of Manama.

Opposition activists staged a large rally in the first week of April in support of jailed human rights activist ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, whose nine-week hunger strike has turned him into a symbol of resistance to the government in the eyes of many Bahrainis. Khawaja was arrested a year previous as part of the crackdown on the popular uprising that began on February 14, 2011 and became centered in Pearl Roundabout on Manama’s outskirts. He was moved to a military hospital on April 6 because of his rapidly deteriorating health. The February 14 Youth Coalition has also organized almost daily protests aimed at the Formula One auto race scheduled for April 22. The government is eager to hold the race to show that Bahrain’s unrest is in the past; the opposition wants it canceled. On April 13, Formula One said the event would proceed as planned.

Violence is escalating on both sides, though the great bulk has come from the state: Security forces are firing more and more tear gas at protesters and in villages sympathetic to the opposition, with two thirds of gas-related deaths occurring since November. Some youth activists, meanwhile, are abandoning peaceful tactics in favor of throwing Molotov cocktails at the police (who have repeatedly been caught on video throwing their own petrol bombs back). On April 9 there were reports of homemade bombs going off or exploding accidentally in the village of al-‘Ikr, causing several injuries among riot police.

In November, there was a moment of optimism after the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) released its report upon the widespread abuses of the preceding eight months. Despite some flaws, the report was generally a clear-eyed assessment of torture and arbitrary detention by the state, as well as sectarianism and other issues. Activists said at the time that if King Hamad bin ‘Isa Al Khalifa responded with grand gestures, perhaps a general amnesty for political prisoners and a serious offer of dialogue with the opposition, the report could be the starting point for compromise. But that hope was quickly extinguished; the BICI report, like past attempts at reconciliation, seems to have only deepened Bahrain’s stalemate and strengthened the opposition’s determination to press its case in the streets. [Continue reading…]

Human Rights Watch has warned Formula 1 that by holding next week’s Bahrain Grand Prix, it will be endorsing the kingdom’s regime despite claims that sport and politics don’t mix.

Joe Stork, the deputy middle east director of Human Rights Watch, which monitors human rights issues worldwide, stopped short of calling for the race to be cancelled in an interview with AUTOSPORT. But he believes that if the race does happen then F1 will be seen as supporting the government.

“You can’t say that you are not mixing politics and sport when you are coming down on one side,” Stork told AUTOSPORT. “You may prefer not to be facing the choice of whether to go in or stay out, but this is the choice F1 faces. Whatever decision it takes, there is a political aspect to it.

“We don’t feel that it is our place to be calling for F1 to boycott Bahrain. But it is not a very good situation and it’s getting steadily worse. We are not security experts, so that’s a whole separate consideration that F1 needs to take into account as well.

“We are looking at a lockdown. F1 is not my world, but this seems to be a terrible climate in which to hold what is supposed to be a competitive, festive sporting event. In the circumstances, I don’t know who is going to be having any fun.”

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