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'No-one will ever be forgiven' for going to Bahrain

20 April 2012

British politicians have again called for fellow countrymen - and F1 in general - to refuse to race in Bahrain this weekend, claiming that the event will show support for a minority ruling party refusing to allow democracy for the entire nation.

Even as drivers refused to discuss the political situation in the country, various members of parliament voiced their concerns about the event going ahead, and called on British drivers to boycott proceedings, despite practice due to start today [Friday]. After a period of uncertainty in which it appeared that the race may go the way of last year's and be cancelled, the FIA finally confirmed that it would go ahead during last weekend's Chinese Grand Prix, with Bernie Ecclestone and Bahrain International Circuit officials insisting that there would be no security threat to anyone taking part.

Those assurances, however, were not the main concern of the outspoken politicians, who insist that F1's appearance in Bahrain gives the wrong impression that it is supporting the ruling family, and government, which refuses to give the wider population the democracy it has been calling for since the start of the Arab Spring revolution which started just over a year ago.

Respect MP George Galloway, never one to hold back with an opinion, was the most vociferous in his opposition, claiming that BIC was 'stained by the blood of the people who are asking for a vote', and insisting that 'there is blood on the tracks and anyone who drives over them will never be forgiven."

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper personally called on British drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button - currently first and second in the world championship standings - to boycott the race, adding that she didn't think the event should go ahead at all.

"You have got demonstrations by democratic protesters who have been violently suppressed and, although it should be a matter for the sport to decide rather than for the government, I do think government ministers can express an opinion. That opinion should be it should not go ahead, it would send the wrong signal, it should not happen," she told the BBC's Question Time programme.

While it was clear that security assurances could not be relied upon, after a group of Force India engineers were caught up in a firebombing on their way from circuit to hotel, British politicians were also quick to warn companies sponsoring F1 teams that they could also be affected by their involvement in the race.

Andy Slaughter, the head of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Democracy in Bahrain, has contacted several blue chip companies - including the likes of Vodafone, Red Bull, Unilever and oil giants Total, Shell and ExxonMobil - that they too could be seen to be endorsing the current regime in Bahrain simply by having their names, or those of their products, appear on cars taking part.

"The scheduling of the Bahrain Grand Prix will provide a forum and indicate to the rest of the world that it is business as usual - when the reality could not be further from the truth," he claimed in a letter sent to heads of the companies, "We are most alarmed that you see no grounds to sever your brand and save its reputation from a totalitarian regime. We sincerely hope you will rethink your associations with the Bahrain Grand Prix and decide to curtail your sponsorship of the race at Sakhir."

"If they are major sponsors, they should at least defend their position," he later told Reuters, ironically not one of the sponsors contacted, despite its prominent involvement with the Williams team.

While the Force India 'incident' was not directly aimed at the team members - and it has prompted two to request to leave the event - activists have vowed to use the race as a focus for further 'days of rage', as seen over the past year since the uprising began last February. British F1 reporters have filed stories throughout the week focusing on the general situation in the part of the country close to the capital Manama and, while they report that the principal city was largely quiet, venturing out into neighbouring villages provided graphic detail of protests and demonstrations.

Although the initial aggression they encountered coincided with the final day of mourning for a cameraman shot dead while filming a protest the previous week, incidents continued throughout the build-up to the event, with police using tear gas and stun grenades to disperse demonstrators as recently as yesterday [Thursday]. Youth groups lead the opposition, clashing daily with riot police in Shi'ite districts.

"A number of rioters and vandals have been arrested for taking part in illegal rallies and gatherings, blocking roads and endangering people's lives by attacking them with petrol bombs, iron rods and stones," the national Information Affairs Authority said in a statement.

While the government hopes that hosting F1 will act as a unifying force for the divided population, it appears that that is not going to be the case, with opposition group spokesman Nabeel Rajab telling journalists that the sport was only providing 'PR for the ruling elite, the repressive dictators who are ruling the country'.

Leading Shi'ite opposition party, Wefaq, which wants the elected parliament to legislate and form cabinets, reducing the powers of the ruling Al Khalifa family, has said it is not opposed to the race taking place, but other opposition groups claim the government has tightened security in an effort to keep Shi'ites in their villages and prevent demonstrations from taking place during the race weekend. While the government refuses to agree on figures, activist groups claim that as many as 70 people have died taking part in, or as the result of being a part of, demonstrations in the past year, with at least another 95 protest organisers arrested and 54 individuals wounded as a consequence of the most recent clashes.

Friday, part of the Muslim weekend, is expected to bring greater protests, both against the regime and F1's decision to continue with the grand prix.


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