Bahrain’s #BloodyF1 Racing
While Bahrain’s government concentrated last weekend exclusively on organizing the Formula 1 GP, those who for over a year have been the victims of a repression shrouded in silence, took advantage of this event to attract the world’s attention to their cause. The winds of the Arab Spring had reached Manama on February 4th 2011, when protesters decided to take to the streets demanding political reform and the departure of the Al-Khalifas, the Sunni royal family that rules the country where there is a Shiite majority. The harshest repression began on March 14th when the government allowed troops into the country sent by the Cooperation Council for the Arab States in the Gulf. One thousand soldiers sent by Saudi King Abdallah arrived in Bahrain with a specific mandate; stop the protests and save King Hamad.
In order not to attract excessive attention to the uprising the 2011 Grand Prix was cancelled and, in spite of the rising number of deaths, (according to protesters more than ninety), events in Manama remained went totally unnoticed both in the West and in some of the Arab world. It was not only the petro-monarchs in the Gulf who turned a blind eye, but also the United States, which has the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet headquartered in Bahrain as a deterrent to Iranian expansion in the region.
“Last year the local authorities had decided to avoid holding the Formula 1 race at the track in Bahrain for political and security reasons. But the uprising that began at the time has ever stopped. It is simply the media that has not reported events. There are interests at stake that must be defended and concentration was all on reporting exclusively what was taking place in Libya and in Syria” explains local activist Nazeeha Saeed, who is also a correspondent for France 24 and Radio Monte Carlo Duwaliya. Last May Nazeeha experienced violence inflicted by the police. She was arrested and tortured by security forces because of her stories about anti-regime protests.
The uprising does not appear to be about to stop, and yet this year the royal family announced reforms. What impact has this had?
The regime’s reforms are cosmetic, not real. Some changes have been made to the constitution, but not on issues considered important by the opposition. The government has also admitted having used violence to repress protests, and yet there has been no change in its attitude. The royal family did say they would consult with American and British advisors to reform the manner in which the police is organised, but security forces have not stopped the cruelty inflicted on protesters. Political prisoners remain in prison and doctors continue to be put on trial and charged with having helped or treated activists.
Visiting the racetrack on the eve of the Grand Prix, Crown Prince Salman al-Khalifa said that there is a great difference between protesters and those who caused problems before and after the race. Do you agree?
For over a year activists have been engaged in a peaceful uprising and many of them continue to march unarmed. In spite of this there are some, exasperated by the regime’s daily repression, who have started to throw fire bombs in response to the attacks by the police every night on their villages. The revolutionary front, however, remains united and presents the same demands.
In the weeks leading up to the Grand Prix, the internet returned to be the means used to attract international attention. The hashtag #BloodyF1 moved from one social network to another, not only in the Middle East but all over the world. What message did it send?
In Bahrain too the new media are important for spreading subversive messages and are indispensible for organising protest events. By labelling messages #BloodyF1, activists intended to provide clear information. The scheduled Formula 1 race would be bloodstained by the police force’s repression of protests. On the eve of the race yet another martyr was killed, 37-year old Saleh, who fell into the hands of the police. By organising the Formula 1 race, the regime was attempting to recover its image and tell the whole world that everything is fine in Bahrain. The royal family want to prove that last year’s problems that prevented the race from being held are now over, but that is not true.
While the race was being held and activists protested, aid organizations launched appeals to save Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the founder of the Gulf Center of Human Rights, who has become one of the uprising’s most well-known faces. Sentenced to life in prison for plotting against the monarchy, Abdulhadi has been on a hunger strike for the past two months that may well result in his death. After several demonstrations, Abdulhadi’s case is now being re-examined, but it is still unclear whether or not there is a possibility that he will be released. How are people reacting to all this?
For years Abdulhadi has been an activist known all over the world for his commitment to human rights. After years in exile he took part in the protests against the regime, loudly asking for democratic change, and like many other activists, Abdulhadi was arrested for having expressed his opinions. Even United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has asked for him to be transferred to Denmark for medical reasons, and yet the local authorities have prevented this. We are all extremely concerned about what may happen to him and his family. Should Abdullahadi die there would be a very powerful reaction by the people. Violence would increase and the number of those killed could soar.