Clashes in Bahrain asactivists slam F1 boss

Security forces fired stun grenades yesterday at protesters who swarmed into a cultural exhibition for Bahrain’s Formula One race, setting off street battles and sending visitors fleeing.

The clashes came as the wife of a jailed activist on hunger strike accused F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, 81, of ignoring her husband’s plight ahead of the race, which returns to the Grand Prix circuit this weekend a year after it was cancelled because of unrest.

The demonstration was the most direct attempt by protesters to link their demands to Sunday’s race. The resumption of the F1 event is being touted by Bahrain’s rulers as a sign they have the upper hand after 14 months of clashes and crackdowns.

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A weeping Khadija al-Mousawi said in an interview in her apartment outside the capital, Manama, that she supported Bahrain having the race. However, she said Mr Ecclestone, 81, had missed a chance to do something to help the pro-democracy movement and her husband Abdulhadi al-Khawaja.

Mr Al-Khawaja, who also has Danish citizenship, was jailed for leading the protests. He has been on hunger strike for two months and is in hospital being fed intravenously. “I am not angry with the government… it’s their future at stake. What makes me angry is people like Ecclestone who decides to come to Bahrain because he thinks everyone is happy,” said Mrs al-Mousawi.Mr Ecclestone told reporters in China last week that all the race teams were happy to go to the Gulf kingdom. “There’s nothing happening,” he added. “I know people who live there and it’s all very quiet and peaceful.”

“I think Formula One is a great thing to happen to Bahrain,” said Mrs al-Mousawi. “It makes Bahrain very well known throughout the world and this makes us happy. But I think at the same time, Formula One should help Bahraini people to get their rights.

“I know they would say this is not our job, we are only car racers. Yes. You are car racers with democracy in your countries and with freedom,” she added.

“I think if Ecclestone had said that he would come if Abdulhadi is freed – he knows about him. He knows about his hunger strike – I think there would have been a chance that he would be free.”

Nearly 50 people have been killed since February last year in violence between security forces and protesters from Bahrain’s Shia majority, which seeks to break the island nation’s Sunni monarchy’s grip on power.

Shias account for about 70 per cent of Bahrain’s population, but claim they face discrimination and are blocked from key political or military posts.

“Down, down Formula One,” some protesters shouted in the traditional market area of Manama yesterday, where displays set up for the race featured local handicrafts, food and other items.

Some of the placards accused the US – allied to Bahrain’s leaders – of ignoring their struggle while backing other reform movements in the Arab spring.Both Washington and London have pressed Bahrain’s king to open dialogue with opposition groups.

At the exhibition, riot police fired stun grenades and pepper spray as hundreds of protesters pressed close to the stalls and shops. Visitors ran for safety, leaving shopping bags and sandals on the road. Many shopkeepers closed early – another sign that unrest might mar hopes the F1 race could help the country’s hard-hit businesses.

There were no reports of injuries, but several protesters were detained.

Earlier yesterday, dozens of people confronted Bahrain’s crown prince and shouted anti-government slogans in a district of Manama that has been an opposition stronghold during the 14-month uprising.

Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa was not injured in the incident. He is a key backer of the Formula One race. The crown prince was surrounded as he left a funeral of a Shia executive who worked on one of his labour reform projects.