• Torture still taking place, says human rights group
• I don’t think it’s anything serious, says Ecclestone
A fresh plea for the cancellation of the Bahrain Grand Prix was made on Tuesday as armoured vehicles rumbled through the capital, Manama, helicopters whirred overhead, protesters threw petrol bombs and police responded with teargas as violence commemorated the anniversary of last year’s Day of Rage pro-democracy uprising in the Gulf kingdom.
Maryam al-Khawaja, head of the foreign relations office at the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, said: “The government promised changes last year but no changes have taken place because there is no incentive to make them. And tortures are still taking place.
“The government want the message to go out that it is business as usual. But today armoured vehicles went into residential areas for the first time since last year’s martial law ended in June. I have heard reports of protesters being thrown from rooftops and others having legs broken. That it is why Formula One should make a stand and call this race off.”
But the resolute message from the Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone and the sport’s governing body, the FIA, is that the race will go ahead on 22 April. Last year’s event, which was due to open the season, was cancelled after two postponements.
Ecclestone, the sport’s commercial rights holder, said day: ” I expected there was going to be a big uprising today, with the anniversary. But I think what happened, apparently, was that here were a lot of kids having a go at the police. I don’t think it’s anything serious at all.
“It doesn’t change our position in any shape or form. If the people in Bahrain [the government] say, ‘Look Bernie, it wouldn’t be good for you to come over here,’ then I would think again. That is what they said last year.”
Meanwhile in Paris an FIA spokesman said: “The FIA, like many in the diplomatic community in the kingdom, the main political opposition, as well as the UK-Bahrain All-Party Parliamentary Group writing in the Times, believes the staging of a Grand Prix would be beneficial in bridging some of the difficulties Bahrain is experiencing.
“The FIA is not in a position to influence political matters in a sovereign country such as Bahrain and we can only wish for a long-term peaceful solution. A number of reforms have been enacted, others are going through legislation. We warmly welcome this, as does the motorsport community which we represent.”
That will dismay those protesters who made their way to the Pearl Roundabout, the focal point of last year’s demonstrations. A number were hit by teargas and one said, as a passing driver pulled him into his car: “They fired straight at us, they weren’t even shooting in the air.”
About 30 people were detained or taken away. More than 60 people have died since last year’s troubles. On the eve of the anniversary teargas, rubber bullets and stun grenades were used to counter hundreds of protesters who broke free from an opposition party rally and marched down the main highway towards the Pearl Roundabout, centre of last year revolt of the Bahraini Shia majority against the Sunni royal rulers.
Khawaja added: “If the F1 race were cancelled it would help give a message to the Bahrain government. I want to ask Bernie Ecclestone does he have children [he does]. If he cares for their future he should recognise that the people of Bahrain want freedom and dignity for their children.
“Their children are just as valuable. He should be sending a very clear message to the Bahrain government that what is happening with the children of Bahrain is not OK.”
But Ecclestone added: “I spoke to somebody recently who has returned to Bahrain to live and he told me it was just like it was out there before the problems started. Somebody did write to me to complain to me that her husband had been badly treated and wrongly arrested. I offered to go out there.
” That was six weeks ago and I haven’t heard a word. I am in regular touch with the Bahrain government and they would tell me if we shouldn’t be there.”
Among the dozen F1 teams there are a number of private misgivings about going to Bahrain. But those teams are contractually obligated to follow the schedule as set down by the FIA and individuals don’t want to break rank, although last year Red Bull’s Mark Webber did speak out.
But there is still plenty of support for the race going ahead. In a letter to the Times the UK-Bahrain All-Party Parliamentary Group said the cancellation of the event would hinder reform.
In the letter the group, which is chaired by the Conservative MP Conor Burns, said: “Bahrain has been conveniently lumped together with other nations and labelled part of the ‘Arab Spring’. “Yet the response of the government of Bahrain has been notably different. Bahrain invited independent human rights lawyers, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), to investigate and has started to implement its recommendations.
“In addition to elections that have led to a fourfold increase in women elected to parliament, Bahrain has also asked John Timoney, the former New York police chief, and John Yates, the former assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, to overhaul policing.”Those who want Bahrain to continue on the path of genuine reform will do the cause no service by cancelling the grand prix this year.”
The letter was in response to an earlier letter, last week, from seven peers and the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, which called for the abandonment of the race in the Gulf kingdom. “We do not believe the time is right for Formula One to return to Bahrain,” that letter said.