Bahrain Grand Prix fails to drown out angry protests
Bahraini protestors claimed a moral victory against the government in their campaign to focus attention on tensions and repression in the Gulf state, despite failing to disrupt the controversial grand prix which went ahead on Sunday under a blanket of security.
Burning tyres sent clouds of thick black smoke billowing into the sky as the showcase event got under way following overnight clashes in the Shia villages near the capital city, Manama, where police fired teargas and rubber bullets at demonstrators.
Troops, armoured vehicles and sniffer dogs deployed around the International Circuit at Sakhir kept protesters at bay and the race passed without incident, with a win for the reigning F1 world champion Sebastian Vettel. Video footage posted online showed a woman being detained at the circuit.
Nearby villages were described as being under "undeclared curfew". Witnesses said police broke up any sign of flash protests and fired teargas if there were no cameras present.
Opposition activists ended the day on a defiant note, exploiting social media to publicise their cause and relishing the brief but intense international interest in Bahrain that was generated by the F1 row.
"They [the government] miscalculated," activist Ala'a Shehabi told Reuters. "They thought cancelling the race would be a defeat for them but they didn't realise the cost of holding the race. They didn't factor in the negative branding." Shortly afterwards, Shehabi was arrested and tweeted the news to her followers as it happened.
Protesters tried to organise a march to Pearl roundabout in downtown Manama, the centre of last year's Arab spring unrest in the country, but activists who managed to evade police checkpoints were quickly arrested. British journalist Colin Freeman of the Sunday Telegraph was held briefly along with his local fixer.
A Bahraini photographer reported that police had threatened to smash his camera for taking pictures of them chasing protesters.
By early evening, there were no reports of mass demonstrations, serious incidents or fatalities, but feelings were running high over the death of Salah Abbas Habib, 37, who was killed during protests on Friday, the first of three "days of rage" called by opposition groups to coincide with the grand prix.
Habib was found dead with a gunshot wound on Saturday. The government swiftly announced a homicide investigation and it was not clear when his body would be released for burial. On Sunday, Al-Jazeera TV provided a link to a video clip of a man identified as Habib being beaten by policemen with rifles but it was impossible to authenticate.
Other TV footage showed masked youths igniting tyres in the streets and scattering before police arrived. Media coverage was limited because accredited motor racing correspondents were at the BIC track and many other correspondents were denied visas. US broadcaster Dan Rather complained that a fixer he had employed had been beaten.
Analyst Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Centre said: "For Bahrain's regime, the F1 race was a massive, almost embarrassing, failure. For the opposition, it was a godsend."
But Bahrain's official media was quick to congratulate King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa on its "success".
King Hamad said in a statement that he wanted "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 problem, say Bahraini and foreign critics, is that reforms have so far been negligible, so the grievances that exploded last year have festered and worsened in an atmosphere of political polarisation in which hardliners in government and the opposition are now setting the pace.
Mansoor al-Jamri, editor of al-Wasat, a respected independent Bahraini newspaper, said he was "amazed by the state of denial" in official statements about the kingdon.
There are divisions in the country's opposition: the Shia al-Wefaq movement advocates dialogue and power-sharing with the government, but other groups demand the overthrow of the Sunni monarchy.
Activists again proved adept at using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to spread news and images of the protests.
"The price we have to pay for the FI," was added as a comment by Nabeel Rajab of the Bahrain Human Rights Society to a picture of a young man being treated for bruises and contusions on his torso and legs. Another opposition supporter described the events as "tyrant family killing ppl & F1 helped making it look good." Another tweeted: "£F1 race is over but Bahrain revolutions continues."
The unrest seems unlikely to die away quickly. On Monday, there are plans to hold a rally in solidarity with Abdelhadi al-Khawaja, one of 14 opposition leaders jailed over last year's uprising and who has been on hunger strike for more than two months. Khawaja's death would almost certainly ignite mass protests.