Formula 1 Racers, and Protestors, Get Ready for Bahrain’s Big Day

Despite concerns about security, Sunday's race will go on. But given the country's abysmal human rights record, should it?

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Bahraini protesters shout slogans as they hold a slogan that read in Arabic "no to dictatorship" during a demonstration in a Shiite suburb of the capital Manama, on April 20, 2012 to demand a halt to the Formula One Grand Prix event.

As international car racing teams finish up their final practice laps ahead of Bahrain’s Formula 1 Grand Prix tomorrow anti-government groups are preparing for their own big day in the international spotlight. For the past week opposition groups have been mounting demonstrations across Bahrain, hoping to draw attention to their demands for a greater political role in national politics. On Friday, tens of thousands gathered in the capital, Manama, for a protest that quickly turned violent. The chanting crowds were swathed in tear gas as police sought to contain the angry demonstrators. Opposition groups say that one man was shot dead with live fire Friday night. Nevertheless, the protesters returned in force on Saturday, even as armored vehicles patrolled the streets of the capital in an attempt to silence the dissent.

Bahrain’s Shia majority has long claimed that it faces discrimination at the hands of the Sunni monarchy. Those grievances took new form in February 2011, when the Arab Spring swept through the tiny island nation, launching a widespread protest movement. The subsequent crackdown has seen more than 50 killed and several hundred detained and jailed. That year the Grand Prix was cancelled over security concerns. Opposition groups were hoping to force another cancellation this year, but the monarchy, desperate to demonstrate that some degree of normalcy has returned to the country after a year of upheaval, pushed ahead. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, who brought the Formula 1 to Bahrain in 2004, told reporters on Friday that canceling the race would play into extremists’ hands, according to the state-run Bahrain News Agency. “The Formula 1 race allows us to build bridges between communities, get people working together,” he said. “It allows us to celebrate our nation as an idea that is positive, not one that is divisive.”

The debate over whether or not to hold the race this year focused largely on the safety issue, with several teams expressing concerns that they might be attacked for participating. Two members of the Force India team went home after protesters threw Molotov cocktails as they passed through a protest on their way to the stadium on Wednesday. But the circuit, which is located in the desert about 30 km from the capital, will be a difficult target for any organized violence.

John Yates, a former assistant police commissioner from London who now works as a security advisor to the Bahrain government, told the Guardian that while he could not guarantee safety for Sunday’s international event, he was confident that all precautions had been put in place. “Of course we can’t guarantee security. I’d be a fool to sit here and say that”, he said. “It’s an open event. Can you stop some idiot running onto the track?” As an extra precaution, he also said police would use live rounds if necessary.

But the safety issue misses the point, say activists. For the past 14 months the authorities have cracked down on demonstrations with excessive use of force, beating unarmed protestors, jailing and torturing activists and using tear gas not just for crowd control, but a weapon. On Thursday, Physicians for Human Rights released a damning report revealing continued cases of torture and the purposeful misuse of tear gas.

“Despite promises of reform since our investigation to the Kingdom last year, the Government’s excessive use of force has only increased,” says Deputy Director Richard Sollom. “Security forces now strategically use tear gas as a potentially lethal weapon against men, women, children, and the elderly alike. Not only do security forces target street protesters, they go out of their way to shoot or throw tear gas into civilian homes.” Such misuses, warns the PHR report, could result in “possible increased rates of miscarriage and birth defects in Bahrain.”

As the protests escalate, and the crackdown becomes more violent, there have been several calls for a last minute cancelation of the event. That would set a terrible, and possibly terrifying, precedent for the upcoming Olympics in London. The reality is, the F1 should never have been allowed to return to Bahrain in the first place. Never mind the fact that race organizers, and the Bahrain government, seem to have underplayed the level of violence in the country—after all, protests have been going on almost every night for the past year—but does Bahrain actually deserve to host the F1?

Last November the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, a government funded but independent investigative body, released its findings on the February 2011 uprising and the subsequent crackdown. The report cited a litany of graphic human-rights violations, including systematic torture, unlawful detention, excessive and indiscriminate use of force, night raids designed to “create fear,” workplace purges of protest participants, sexual abuse, the threat of rape along with beatings and the administration of electric shocks to elicit confessions, and the destruction of religious sites that “give the impression of collective punishment.” The commission recommended a series of sweeping changes that Bahrain’s king promised to implement.

The reforms have been slow in coming, however, and opposition groups say what little has been done is largely superficial. Those groups argue that the F1, and other international sporting events like it, should be seen as a reward to nations that strive to improve their human rights records. Instead, the decision to go through with the race was one predicated on the ability of an oppressive government to further oppress dissent in order to deliver security. And that is how it should be, said Formula 1 Chief Bernie Ecclestone in an interview with CNN last week. “I don’t think sport should be involved in politics. The problems in Bahrain have nothing to do with Formula One. Let’s put it another way — assume we didn’t have a race in Bahrain, would all the problems stop?” No, of course not. But if one of the world’s premier sporting events had been canceled a second time in Bahrain, and this time because of concerns about human rights abuses, it might have forced some changes. Brian Dooley, of Human Rights First put it best in a tweet: “As we used to say during the anti-apartheid struggle, ‘You can’t have normal sport in an abnormal society.’”

Aryn Baker is TIME’s Middle East Bureau Chief, based in Beirut. Find her on Twitter at @arynebaker. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.

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