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Bahrain F1 race like a circuit of death

As the Formula 1 Grand Prix teams begin arriving in Bahrain for this weekend’s race, let’s hope they are not too disturbed by the fact that human rights activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja is near to death as he continues his hunger strike.

Or that hundreds of protesters are still in prison after being detained, tried unfairly by military courts, and receiving harsh prison sentences, according to Amnesty International’s new report. Or that dozens have been imprisoned for life in the brutal crackdown that followed the uprising against the ruling Al Khalifa family in February and March 2011.

That led to the cancellation of last year’s Grand Prix. But Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone has decreed that this year’s race must go ahead, lending succour to a regime that is truly despised by the majority of the population.

The defiance continues amid state violence, despite bringing in former Scotland Yard commissioner John Yates to tart up the image of the country’s police force. Yates quit the Met, you will remember, in the wake of the News of the World hacking scandal last summer. He recently wrote to Formula 1’s governing body president Jean Todt saying he feels safer living in Bahrain “than I have often felt in London”. No comment.

Amnesty pours cold water on Bahrain’s attempt to create a new image for itself with a series of “reforms”. The organisation’s report published today concludes:

Reforms have been piecemeal, perhaps aiming to appease Bahrain’s international partners, and have failed to provide real accountability and justice for the victims. Human rights violations are continuing unabated. The government is refusing to release scores of prisoners who are incarcerated because they called for meaningful political reforms, and is failing to address the Shi’a majority’s deeply-seated sense of discrimination and political marginalization, which has exacerbated sectarian divides in the country.

Prisoners still in jail include 14 leading opposition figures and a prominent trade unionist. Among them is al-Khawaja, who has been on hunger strike for almost 70 days in protest at his imprisonment. Immediately after his arrest in April last year, al-Khawaja’s jaw was broken and required major surgery.

In hospital he was blindfolded the whole time and handcuffed to the bed. Discharged against the recommendations of his doctor, al-Khawaja was placed in solitary confinement and has been beaten, suffered sexual assault and other torture.

Amnesty reports that the country’s security forces remain unaffected by “institutional changes” introduced by the government. Several people have died in recent months as a result of what is described as the “reckless use of tear gas”. The number of deaths had reached at least 60 by April 2012.

That the F1 race is going ahead is in no small part the result of the work done by PR consultants to “correct inaccurate reporting”. At the heart of the operation is David Cracknell, former political editor of the Sunday Times and whose Big Tent Communications is current PR consultant for the government of Bahrain.

Matt Hardigree, writing for the auto website Jalopnik, says that a series of emails from Cracknell have sought to convey the image of a peaceful Bahrain and that the F1 race should go ahead.

The e-mails sent to me — and other motoring journalists — are filled with statements attempting to delegitimize reports of torture and protests that attempt to paint Bahrain as safe. At the same time, Cracknell highlights what he describes as attacks on police. Reading his emails it's as if there are two Bahrains that exist simultaneously; one filled with violent, evil anti-government protestors who rage against the police and another that's mostly peaceful.

No doubt there will be protests in Bahrain against the holding of the race. Most likely they will result in deaths. But Formula 1 is extremely big business and the blood of a few Bahrainis is not going to be allowed to interrupt proceedings.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
17 April 2012

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