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Bahrain Formula 1 Grand Prix has taken place despite continuing anti-government protests and the race track has been heavily guarded by police, dogs and armored vehicles to keep activists away.
On Saturday, protests intensified after the body of a Shia activist killed in overnight clashes with security forces was discovered on a rooftop.
Many protesters wanted the race to be cancelled, but the government was determined it would go ahead.
West of the capital, Manama, demonstrators have set up barricades of burning tires.
Witnesses say police have set up checkpoints near the circuit and officers armed with pump-action shotguns are lining nearby roads.
Inside the circuit the atmosphere was relaxed, and it felt like any other grand prix in the calendar.
Ahead of the race Bahrain’s King Hamad al-Khalifa said that he was committed to reform in the kingdom.
“I also want to make clear my personal commitment to reform and reconciliation in our great country. The door is always open for sincere dialogue amongst all our people,” the king said in a statement.
King Hamad’s comments came after police fired tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters who took to the streets on Saturday. Many of them had gathered near the village where anti-government demonstrator Salah Abbas Habib’s body was found.
Bahrain Formula 1 Grand Prix has taken place despite continuing anti-government protests
British Foreign Secretary William Hague also called for restraint in dealing with protesters.
The protesters are demanding an end to discrimination against the majority Shia Muslim community by the Sunni royal family.
Ahead of Sunday’s race, armored vehicles patrolled the streets to stamp out any demonstrations.
Formula 1’s governing body, the FIA, only went ahead with the Grand Prix after the government said it had security under control. The race was eventually won by two-time world champion Sebastian Vettel.
Last year’s Bahraini Grand Prix was cancelled after 35 people died during a crackdown on mass demonstrations calling for greater democracy.
The Bahraini government, headed by the al-Khalifa dynasty, had been keen for this year’s race to go ahead to prove it had the 14-month uprising under control.
Staging the event has had the opposite effect, highlighting the small Gulf state’s political problems.
On Friday, Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa said cancelling the Grand Prix “just empowers extremists”, and insisted that holding the race would “build bridges across communities”.
FIA President Jean Todt said he had no regrets about the race. He said extensive investigations into the situation in Bahrain had unearthed “nothing (that) could allow us to stop the race”.
“On rational facts, it was decided there was no reason to change our mind,” Jean Todt said.
Shia protesters say going ahead with the race lends international legitimacy to a government that is continuing to suppress opposition with violent means.
Human rights groups and activists estimate that at least 25 people have died since the start of the latest protests, many as a result of what has been described as the excessive use of tear gas.
Meanwhile, the Danish ambassador visited hunger striker Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja – who also holds Danish citizenship – in hospital on Sunday, Bahrain’s BNA news agency said.
It said that the human rights and political activist was in “good health”. His family has consistently maintained that he is in a critical condition.
Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja has been on hunger strike for more than 70 days after being arrested for protesting against the government. He is now reported to be refusing water.
His daughter, Zeinab al-Khawaja, was also briefly detained amid protests on Saturday afternoon.
The visit by the Danish ambassador is fuelling suggestions that Abdul Hamid al-Khawaja will be stripped of his Bahraini citizenship and sent to Denmark.
Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja is scheduled to appear in court on Monday to appeal against his conviction and life sentence for plotting to overthrow the government.
Activists in Bahrain say a man has been found dead with gunshot wounds after overnight clashes with police a day before Sunday’s Formula 1 Grand Prix.
The body was found in the Shia village of Shakhoura, near the capital, Manama, an opposition group said.
On Friday, tens of thousands took part in at times violent protests demanding an end to the crackdown on dissent in the run-up to the rally.
Armored vehicles are patrolling the streets of Manama ahead of the race.
The discovery came as practice and qualifying sessions for the Grand Prix were taking place. Mainly Shia protesters have announced “days of rage” against the race.
Formula 1’s governing body, the FIA, only went ahead with the Grand Prix after the government said it had security under control.
Last year’s Grand Prix was cancelled after 35 people died in February and March during a crackdown on mass demonstrations calling for greater democracy.
The protesters demand an end to discrimination against the majority Shia Muslim community by the Sunni royal family.
A man has been found dead with gunshot wounds after overnight clashes with police a day before Sunday's Bahrain F1 Grand Prix
Human rights groups and activists estimate that at least 25 people have died since the start of the protests, many as a result of what has been described as the excessive use of tear gas.
Activists from opposition group al-Wefaq said the man found dead on Saturday, variously named as Salah Abbas Habib or Salah al-Gattan, 37, was killed by government forces.
Several others were hit by birdshot in the incident, said Nabeel Rajab from the Centre for Human Rights.
In a message posted on Twitter, the Bahraini Interior Ministry confirmed that a dead person was found in Shakhoura. It said police had launched an investigation.
On Friday, Bahrain’s Crown Prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, said cancelling the Grand Prix “just empowers extremists”, and insisted that holding the race would “build bridges across communities”.
Jean Todt, the president of the motor racing governing body, the FIA, said he had no regrets about the race, as extensive investigations into the situation in Bahrain had unearthed “nothing (that) could allow us to stop the race”.
“On rational facts, it was decided there was no reason to change our mind,” Jean Todt said.
The Shia protesters say going ahead the race lends international legitimacy to a government that is continuing to suppress opposition with violent means.
Al-Wefaq said security forces had beaten protesters in Shakhoura with tools and weapons, according to the AFT news agency.
The group reported on Saturday that 70 people had been injured by security forces in the past two days and 80 others arrested.
Meanwhile, the daughter of political and human rights activist Abdul al-Khawaja, who has been on hunger strike for more than two months, was briefly detained when she went to see him in hospital, Nabeel Rajab said. She was not allowed to see her father.
Abdul al-Khawaja launched his hunger strike in protest against a life sentence handed down by a military tribunal in June.
He stopped drinking water on Thursday, according to his daughter, Zainab.
She said on Saturday her father was in a critical state.
“He’s on the 73rd day of his hunger strike and the last call he made yesterday, he asked for his lawyer to go see him so he could write his will.
“We’re afraid that we might never hear of him again, and that we might not see him again.”
During Friday’s protests, tens of thousands people walked along a motorway from Budaiya, an area to the west of the capital, Manama.
Police fired stun grenades and tear gas at a small group who tried to reach the site of the former Pearl Roundabout, which was at the heart of the initial mass anti-government protests last year.
Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa of Bahrain says the weekend’s Formula 1 Grand Prix will go ahead despite protests.
“Cancelling the race just powers extremists. Having it allows us to build bridges and celebrate our nation as an idea that’s positive,” Prince Salman said.
Unrest in the Gulf state has led to calls for the race to be cancelled for the second year running.
On Friday, thousands attended a protest in Budaiya, demanding an end to the crackdown on dissent.
Riot police initially showed restraint, but when a group of about 100 protesters broke away and attempted to reach the site of the former Pearl Roundabout – the focus of last year’s pro-democracy demonstrations – they fired stun grenades and tear gas.
The overnight demonstrations called for the “overthrow of the regime” and the release of the human rights and political activist, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who has been on hunger strike in prison for more than 70 days in protest at the life sentence he received from a military tribunal in June.
Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa of Bahrain says the weekend's Formula 1 Grand Prix will go ahead despite protests
Earlier in the day, the Force India team missed Friday’s second practice session because they wanted to return to their hotel before dark.
Four of their mechanics narrowly avoided being hit by petrol bombs during a clash between protesters and police on Wednesday.
On Thursday, a bus containing 12 mechanics from the Sauber team took to the hard shoulder after encountering a burning bottle in the road and seeing masked men running towards their lane. No-one was hurt in either incident.
Several British politicians have called for the race to be cancelled while Amnesty International said “not much has changed” in Bahrain since last year’s protests led to the deaths of more than 50 anti-government demonstrators.
Prime Minister David Cameron said it was a matter for Formula 1, but Labour leader Ed Milliband insisted it would send out the wrong signal if the grand prix went ahead at a time of protests over human rights abuses.
However, Prince Salman said he thought the race could be “a force for good”.
“I think this race should continue because it is indeed a very big event for this country, important economically, socially,” he said.
“It was only a few politicians who made those comments and it certainly doesn’t represent the entire British political system.”
Prince Salman, flanked by F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone, gave a media briefing at the track.
Bernie Ecclestone said: “We came here because this race asked to be put on the calendar. We’re happy and delighted it was.
“What happens in this country is nothing to do with us. This race has given the protesters an incredible platform for all you guys to talk to them.
“They say they talk about democracy, which is freedom of speech. They’ve had all the freedom in the world to talk.”
Ferrari boss Stefano Domenicali said teams had been given assurances about their safety.
“With regard to security, we have received all the guarantees from the federation and the organiser and so far everything is under control. I don’t feel we as teams are the target of the protesters and that is really important,” he said.
“I would say there are two points. One there is the race, a sporting event, where we have to be focused as a team here in the paddock.
“Secondly, there is a political issue that is not really on our side to comment.”
Stun grenades have been fired by Bahraini security forces as protesters gathered outside a cultural exhibition in Manama ahead of Sunday’s Formula 1 Grand Prix.
A local journalist reported the demonstrators in Old Manama were shouting “Down, down, F1” and demanding the release of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja.
The activist has been on hunger strike in prison for more than two months.
Abdulhadi al-Khawaja’s lawyer earlier said his client had removed the intravenous drip keeping him alive.
The 52-year-old told his wife on Tuesday afternoon that he was also now refusing anything but water, Mohammed al-Jishi said.
Abdulhadi al-Khawaja believed nothing was being done to resolve his continued detention, and this was the only way to force the issue, he added.
He was convicted by a military court in June of plotting against the state, but human rights groups have said that his trial was “grossly unfair”.
Bahraini security forces clashed with protesters gathered outside Formula 1 Grand Prix exhibit in Manama
They said his conviction was based on a confession he made under duress, and that no evidence was presented showing he had used or advocated violence during protests against King Hamad Al Khalifa.
Bahrain’s highest court is due to rule on Abdulhadi al-Khawaja’s appeal against his conviction on Monday – a day after the Grand Prix.
Last year’s race was cancelled after at least 35 people, including five police, were killed during a crackdown on pro-democracy protests.
Formula 1’s governing body, the FIA, only decided to go ahead with this weekend’s race at the last minute.
On Wednesday, opposition supporters held a protest demanding Sunday’s Grand Prix also be called off, and calling for the immediate release of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja in Old Manama.
A Bahraini journalist, who asked not to be named for fear of arrest, said there were chaotic scenes outside Bab al-Bahrain, which marks the entrance to the main souq.
Veteran activist Nabeel Rajab reportedly stood near Bab al-Bahrain chanting anti-government slogans, while others carried signs reading: “Your silence is killing al-Khawaja.”
The journalist warned: “If he dies the streets will explode.”
Riot police at first demanded the protesters leave. When they refused, officers fired deafening “sound bombs” into the crowd, sending protesters and bystanders running.
Stun grenades and rubber bullets were also used to disperse the protesters, while helicopters circled overhead and interior ministry officers filmed the clashes, the journalist said.
The Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights meanwhile told AFP news agency the authorities had arrested about 80 pro-democracy activists from villages outside the capital ahead of the Grand Prix.