Bahrain's government came under growing pressure Thursday after international media who descended on the tiny Gulf kingdom to cover the country's Formula One race turned their attention to persistent anti-government protests.
Kevin Eason, motor racing correspondent for Britain's Times newspaper, told msnbc.com that what he had seen throughout Bahrain in the past few days had changed the way he viewed protesters in the country. (The Times operates behind a paywall)
"I was very impressed ... and the people were incredibly polite, generous (and) welcoming. They all had a story to tell of their own experiences and what has been happening recently," he said, recounting a peaceful demonstration numbering around 3,000 people that he had visited on Tuesday in the village of al Dair.
"It was a proper cross-section of the community," Eason said. "It was old men it was fathers, it was young children, toddlers and a lot of women -- difficult to know how many but maybe a thousand, all dressed in black, all calling for peace."
Mazen Mahdi / EPA
Anti-Formula One graffiti is seen on the walls in Barbar village, north of the Bahraini capital Manama on Wednesday.
"I was very impressed and moved by that."
Eason added that the protests, which have been degenerating into nightly violent clashes with security forces in villages outside the capital, were only part of the story and that many people elsewhere were simply getting on with their everyday lives.
Earlier on Thursday, Eason tweeted that a fire bomb landed near a vehicle belonging to the Force India team as they came back from from the track on Wednesday evening. Two members of the team asked to return to the UK after the incident, he reported.
Bahrain, the base for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, has been hit by near daily violence between security forces and protesters from the country's Shiite majority seeking to break the Sunni monarchy's tight grip on power. Washington has only gently prodded its Saudi-allied rulers to improve human rights and push forward political reforms. Thirty-five people were killed during the uprising last year, including five from torture, as well as security personnel
The Bahrain GP is the nation's biggest sports event, drawing a worldwide TV audience of about 100 million in 187 countries. It brought in a half-billion dollars in 2010 and 100,000 visitors, Reuters cited global risk analysis group Maplecroft as saying. Such an infusion is desperately needed in a country whose economy contracted 50 percent last year due to the unrest, Maplecroft said.
John Yates, Britain's former Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner advising Bahrain on policing strategy, and a NBC counter-terrorist expert, said protests had been expected and planned for.
AFP - Getty Images
Shiite female democracy activists, waving national flags,call for Formula One to be canceled in the town of Isa on Wednesday.
"Everyone is expecting more protests leading up to this event," he told msnbc.com. "That is properly catered for and not unexpected. (The) sense I have and I hope it is not a complacent one is that everyone is here to enjoy the event and they’re excellent plans."
"Nobody anywhere can guarantee 100 percent security," he added.
'Should not be politicized'
Organizers have also repeatedly insisted the race will be safe and that security fears are overblown. They have blamed extremist groups using "scare-mongering tactics" for raising doubts about the race and have employed everyone from Bahrain football coach Peter Taylor to Yates, to assure race teams and fans that the race will be problem-free.
Rather than sewing divisions, organizers say have insisted the race can unite the country. They have spent heavily for the past weeks on events aimed at promoting the race, even rolling out a new slogan Unif1ed-One Nation in Celebration.
"This race is more than a mere global sport event and should not be politicized to serve certain goals, which may be detrimental to this international gathering," said Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa as he toured the Bahrain International Circuit on Tuesday. He owns the rights to the grand prix and serves as commander of the armed forces.
On Wednesday, security forces fired stun grenades at largely Shiite demonstrators at a cultural exhibition for the Formula One races. The clashes sent both demonstrators and people attending the exhibit running for cover in a potential blow to Bahrain's efforts to use this weekend's race as a sign of stability after 14 months of unrest.
The protesters chanted slogans against the race, which was canceled last year. They also called for the release of a jailed activist on a hunger strike lasting more than two months.
"The regime was isolated because of the crimes it committed and the Bahrain Grand Prix is giving a way out for the government, especially the royal family," Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told Reuters. "We need this regime to be punished for the crimes it has committed in the past year and half."
Yates countered that Bahrain had been targeted by the international media, and accused some human rights groups and journalists with "rank hypocrisy."
He added:"China last weekend held a race. (There was) no comment about a place with the worst human rights record ... Bahrain has admitted they got things wrong last year, I have stated categorically they got things wrong, I have used the words 'tragic' and 'appalling.'... (The government) said they're willing to change, to make some very significant changes in their approach to human rights."
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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