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April 17, 2013

Crackdown Intensifies Before F1 in Bahrain

By Sayed Yousif Al-Mahafdah

For the second consecutive year, Bahrain will host a Formula One (F1) race despite severe human rights violations documented by local and international human rights organizations, including the United Nations.

For the second consecutive year, the race will proceed with great fanfare as the plight of dozens of athletes who were detained and tortured for exercising their freedom of expression goes unnoticed. Many of these athletes were targeted, arrested and defamed because of their participation in the "Athletes March," a peaceful march by athletes who supported the 14th February Revolution at the Pearl Roundabout. Some remain in jail.

For the second consecutive year, the suffering of the staff of the Bahrain International Circuit  - the company that hosts the F1 race - is being ignored. Back in 2011, the staff’s offices were raided by security forces, and some were subjected to torture inside the F1 premises. Some were even fired from their jobs.

It’s no surprise that "racing on our blood" is a slogan often chanted by Bahrainis in marches and sit-ins in reference to the F1. During last year's F1 race, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights documented the arrest of at least 60 protesters and dozens of injuries caused by the extensive use of force by the Bahraini security forces. There were also some deaths, including Salah Abbas, a 35 year-old man from Shakura village who died after being hit with gunshot pellets fired by police during a peaceful march on the eve of the F1 race.

History is repeating itself in 2013. This year, seven days prior to the start of the F1 race, we documented the arrest of 50 people, including 20 activists from the villages near the area of Bahrain International Circuit, including Darkulaib and Shahrakan, a tactic we believe is designed to spread terror among people in the areas where protests are often held.

The Bahraini security forces do all of this to ensure that the F1 goes off smoothly. It’s reflective of the Kingdom’s actions during the past two years. The Bahrian government responded to revolution that began in February 2011with a crackdown that has resulted in the deaths of 80 people, including children, and the arrest of thousands of men and dozens of women who were systematically tortured. The regime continues to get away with murder.

In spite of all of these abuses, the Arab and international media has failed to cover Bahrain in the way they covered other revolutions in the "Arab Spring." We, as human rights activists in Bahrain, ask journalists who are coming to cover the F1 to see the other side of things here, the side hidden by the authorities. We ask them to come and see the daily protests in over 40 areas of Bahrain where people demand their freedom and their right of self-determination. We ask them to observe how peaceful protestors are often met with collective punishment using tear gas and shotgun pellets.

We ask them to watch as the seriously injured are scared to go to government hospitals because they have been militarized. Even private hospitals have been instructed by the Ministry of Health in Bahrain not to treat injured protestors and to report them immediately to the police upon arrival to the hospital. The BCHR recently issued a detailed report on the militarization of hospitals and the lack of medical neutrality. Despite the ongoing abuses in Bahrain, weapons sellers are ready to supply the Bahrain authorities with the weapons used in its crackdown.

If they look, journalists will have no problem witnessing the deterioration of freedom of expression in Bahrain, including the arrest of those who publish their views on Twitter. I was among those arrested just minutes after tweeting a photo of an injured Bahraini who was shot by shotgun bullet. I was imprisoned for my post.

The United States is one of the countries supporting the Bahraini regime despite the Obama Administration’s claims to be on the side of democracy and human rights. Why does the administration often stay so silent on the situation in Bahrain and not announce its support for the legitimate demands of the Bahrainis to peaceful protest and self-determination? We know Bahrain hosts a major U.S. military base. That is why it is so important for them to speak up for us and to say that we are people who deserve democracy. Bahrainis want to enjoy it as U.S. citizens do. We want to express our opinions and to elected our officials. Our unelected prime minister has not been changed for 42 years, unlike the United States where Americans practice their right to elect a President every four years.

We are gradually being killed in Bahrain by international silence for our crime of demanding self-determination. As the F1 race commences, we ask that you look beyond the track. We ask that you look into the streets of Bahrain, where those who want democracy are in a race against time for their lives and freedom.

Sayed Yousif Al-Mahafdah is the monitoring and follow-up official in the Bahrain Center for Human Rights @saidyousif