The King of Bahrain has expressed his gratitude to the organizers of the Formula 1 race held Sunday in the kingdom, despite violent protests by the Shiite opposition which calls for fundamental reforms. In the morning, residents said, security forces were heavily deployed, especially on roads leading to the Sakhir circuit where the race was to take place from 1600 GMT. But young protesters managed to block roads briefly, setting fire to tires or dumpsters, while a helicopter flew over the area at low altitude.
The King of Bahrain, Hamad bin Issa Al-Khalifa, who planned to attend the race, promised in a statement to conduct political reforms demanded by the Shiite opposition.
On Saturday, the opposition reported the first death in the demonstrations related to F1. Fresh clashes, sometimes violent, broke out overnight Saturday in some Shiite villages. Scores of protesters, some wearing hoods, chanted slogans against the regime before clashing with security forces deployed massively around their villages, witnesses said. In some villages, like Malkiya, Karzakan, Sadad, and Damistan, protesters waved banners proclaiming, "No to the formula of blood". Tear gas and stun grenades were fired by police forces, as the demonstrators responded by throwing stones and petrol bombs, witnesses said. However, police managed to block access to the center of Manama to prevent a planned demonstration on Saturday night to demand the release of Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja, a militant sentenced to life imprisonment who started a hunger strike before two months. While NGOs in European capitals were concerned about his health, the Interior Ministry said Sunday on its Twitter account, he was "healthy".
According to officials of the Bahrain International Circuit, Mr. Khawaja was to receive a visit by the Danish Ambassador. In addition, another opposition activist, Mohammed Hassan, was arrested and "tortured" for accompanying journalists during demonstrations in a Shiite village. This was denounced Sunday by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
The authorities claim that the incidents are isolated and trying to minimize their impact on the Grand Prix, after the cancellation of the race last year. King Hamad thanked the organizers who have "assured that this great event will be held in the spirit of celebration." But, he added, "I want to emphasize clearly my personal commitment to reforms and reconciliation in our great country." "The door remains open to sincere dialogue" between Bahrainis, he said. Organizations defending human rights criticized the race being held during an era of political crisis.