By BARBARA SURK and REEM KHALIFA, Associated Press
MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — A year after an anti-government revolt forced Bahrain's rulers to cancel the kingdom's coveted Formula One race, the grand prix is again smack in the middle of a power struggle.
Protesters aiming to break the Sunni regime's grip on power have stepped up their campaign against the event — holding rallies across the island, plastering anti-Formula One posters on walls and criticizing the F1 chief and race drivers on social media websites.
The country's leadership is determined to stage the April 22 race as it seeks to show signs of stability nearly 14 months after the country's Shiite majority began a sustained uprising seeking a greater voice in the kingdom's affairs of the kingdom, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
But opposition supporters are equally determined to spoil the party and instead draw attention to their grievances.
"We don't want Formula One in our country," Ali Mohammed said during a recent rally against the Bahrain GP in the capital, Manama. "They are killing us every day with tear gas. They have no respect for human rights or democracy. Why would we keep silent?"
"No one will enjoy the F1 in Bahrain with cries for freedom from the inside and outside of the race," he added.
Human rights groups also have criticized the decision of the world racing body to reinstate the Bahrain race this year. Bahrain's Shiite majority is demanding more rights and opportunities, equal to the Sunni minority that rules Bahrain.
Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa owns the rights to grand prix and serves as commander of the armed forces. Although the F1 race is the island's premier international event, many Bahrainis see it as a vanity project of the rulers, who are behind the crackdown on dissent.
The race was canceled last year after the authorities imposed martial law and launched a punishing crackdown on dissent. At least 50 people have been killed and hundreds have been tried on anti-state charges in a special security court, including more than 100 athletes, coaches and sports officials. Dozens of those have been sentenced to prison terms, including a prominent human rights activist who is serving a life sentence for his role in the uprising.
The activist, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, has been on hunger strike for more than 50 days. Opposition supporters rally every day for his release, often carrying al-Khawaja's picture along with posters calling for the cancellation of the F1 race.
Human rights organizations have warned Bahraini authorities that al-Khawaja may die and appealed to those involved in the race to stay away.
"It is impossible to imagine that the Bahrain Grand Prix will go ahead if Abdulhadi al-Khawaja dies on hunger strike in prison," said Mary Lawlor, the Executive Director of Ireland-based rights organization Front Line Defenders. "The Bahraini authorities clearly want to present an image of business as usual but their seeming indifference to the plight of Abdulhadi risks tragic consequences."
In February, an opposition group that has been the driving force of the yearlong uprising warned the F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone against staging the Bahrain race "at a time when children are being killed in the streets." The grand prix's return to the Gulf kingdom will "imprint it with the image of death and human rights violations," the group said.
Race organizers, however, remain committed to staging next month's Bahrain GP, which has a worldwide TV audience of around 100 million in 187 countries. The annual race has been Bahrain's most profitable international event since 2004, when it became the first Arab country to stage the Grand Prix.
Last month, F1 world champions Sebastian Vettel and Michael Schumacher backed the decision to go ahead with the Bahrain GP despite opposition and almost daily street confrontations between security forces and opposition supporters.
Ecclestone also has dismissed the continued unrest and the opposition to the race saying "it's all nonsense," after lunching with the Bahrain International Circuit executives in London last week.
"Of course the race is going to happen. No worries at all," Ecclestone said.
Racing officials in the Gulf kingdom were glowing after Ecclestone's endorsement. The circuit's chief executive, Sheik Salman bin Isa Al-Khalifa, told The Associated Press that the F1 was a force of good, and that it will boost the country's battered economy and help the deeply divided communities of Shiites and Sunnis move toward reconciliation.
Many Bahrainis agree that the race will at least bring some sense of normality back to the U.S.-allied island nation that has been the Gulf's oasis of openness and modernity before Dubai became the region's boomtown.
"I would like very much to see the Formula One happening in Bahrain, not because I love the sport but because it will help the business," said Farooq Mohammed, a shop assistant in Manama's gold and jewelry market.
Raed Ali, an 18-year-old high school student said he admired the rulers for supporting the race.
"I love the F1 and I really want to go this year," Ali said. "It's become a national sport that our leaders love very much."
Protesters, meanwhile, urged international teams and auto racing fans not to reward the Gulf nation with their presence amid the Arab Spring's longest-running street clashes.
"Whoever will come to Bahrain for the F1 is not welcome," said Fatima Mohammed, a 19-year-old protester, who's been filming tear gas engulfed clashes between riot police and protesters. "Our government is brutal and run by a greedy family, who cares only about power and money, not its people."
Surk reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates