Protests, clashes, death cast pall over Bahrain Grand Prix
Protesters were driven by outrage over the death of one of their number, whose body was found sprawled on a village rooftop after overnight clashes with police.
MANAMA, Bahrain - Crowds of masked protesters hurled Molotov cocktails at police who fired tear gas back in Bahrain on Saturday, turning the streets into a battle zone on the eve of a Formula One Grand Prix demonstrators say glorifies a repressive government.
Protesters were driven by outrage over the death of one of their number, whose body was found sprawled on a village rooftop after overnight clashes with police. Activists say his death takes the total dead since the uprising began on February 14, 2011 to 81, including police killed last year, a figure the government disputes.
Bahrain's government has spent $40 million to host the global luxury sporting event, hoping to demonstrate that normal life has returned to the Gulf island kingdom after it cracked down harshly on Arab Spring demonstrations last year.
The protesters, mostly from the majority Shi'ite Muslim community, blame the Sunni ruling elite for shutting them out of opportunities, jobs and housing. They have made it clear they will use the international attention the race has focused on Bahrain to air their grievances.
Mohammed al-Maskati of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights said police used tear gas, rubber bullets and sound bombs on a crowd of several hundred protesters trying to reach a main road in al-Bilad al-Qadeem, a Shi'ite neighborhood of Manama.
The neighborhood was home to Salah Abbas Habib, 37, whose body was found splayed on a corrugated iron rooftop. Opposition party Wefaq said he was among a group of protesters who had been beaten by police after fierce clashes on Friday night.
A funeral march for Habib will probably take place Sunday, setting the stage for riots during the big race itself.
The uprising forced the cancelation of last year's Grand Prix, but this year the authorities were determined to stage it.
The head of Formula One's governing body said the sport would suffer no long-lasting damage from the Bahrain event, despite the images of streets ablaze. "I am not sure that all that has been reported corresponds to the reality of what is happening in this country," International Automobile Federation president Jean Todt told reporters at the Bahrain circuit.
The protests have so far been kept away from the Bahrain International Circuit, where qualifying races were held on Saturday.
According to Maskati, three witnesses who took part with Habib in Friday night's clash said he had been hit by birdshot while running away from police. "They said they don't know if he died from the birdshot or from being beaten up by security forces," Maskati said, adding police appeared to know where his body was when they went to the village of Shakhura early Saturday morning.
Hackers brought down the F1 website intermittently on Friday and defaced another site, f1-racers.net, to support what they described as the Bahraini people's struggle against oppression.
Some members of the 12 teams have witnessed clashes. Two members of the Force India team went home to Britain. Force India returned to the track after skipping a Friday practice.
Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone described general security fears as "nonsense." Team principals say they are confident in security measures, which they describe as similar to arrangements at other Formula One races across the globe.