Protests Overshadow Bahrain Grand Prix

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. Tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets of Bahrain today. They demanded the cancellation of the Bahrain Formula 1 Grand Prix which is scheduled for Sunday. Now normally the car race is a glamorous showcase for the small Arab kingdom, but it's been overshadowed by over a year of political turmoil there. Antigovernment protests and a violent crackdown by the authorities forced the cancellation of last April's Bahrain Grand Prix. This year it seems the race will take place despite the protests. Today the king called the grand prix a force for good. Ala'a Shehabi is a write and activist in Bahrain. The Bahraini royal family she says has a lot at stake in the race.

Ala'a Shehabi: They're all the biggest industries in the country that have vested interest in the Formula 1, and so because of that involvement in the sport it's become a flashpoint, a leverage point to try and pressure them for change. And so when it was cancelled last year they thought that would be a strong sign and a strong message to the government that the global public opinion is that this regime is not worthy to have such a prestigious event. And I think that's what pressured the government to introduce at least minor cosmetic reforms and we hope that they to continue to do so. We are now again for Formula 1 support per se, many people are Formula 1 fans in the country and to have sold the conflict would have allowed the sport to go ahead in a joyous atmosphere and everyone in the country can enjoy the sport. In an environment where people are going to be popping champagne bottles and celebrating, having live parties and concerts, the rest of the island is suffocating from teargas, trying to treat it's injured sons and daughters at home.

Mullins: Can you describe some of the changes that have taken place, how your life for instance has changed over the past year since the government has made some concessions to prodemocracy activists?

Shehabi: My husband was kidnapped from his office car park and I never saw him for two months until he appeared in a military court.

Mullins: What was he accused of?

Shehabi: Participating in an illegal assembly, even though he hadn't ever been to a protest before. He was completely apolitical. So to see people that were not even involved in the protest movement but punished severely for having any connection to the opposition because he belonged to Shiite family or he was connected to the opposition through me, the government took revenge on him. And what I've seen happen is now households where a member hasn't lost their job, who hasn't had a relative who's in prison or is related to someone who has been killed. So this makes the struggle very personal. And we're so interlinked with such a small tiny island, such a small community that the collective feeling is shared and unifying.

Mullins: Just one more question for you, if the Formula 1 Grand Prix goes well this weekend will that hurt your cause and your calls for reform of the government in Bahrain?

Shehabi: I think if the Formula 1 goes through that just shows really the insistence of the organizers to forego and to ignore the plight of the people, but the fact that we've received such strong support and solidarity in the international community and from motor sport fans to say this is wrong is enough for us to sustain the struggle to say look, you know, our plight against oppression continues and it's a legitimate one.

Mullins: Thank you, Ala'a Shehabi, who's a writer and activist in Bahrain. We will make a link to your website, Bahrain Watch at theworld.org. Thanks a lot.

Shehabi: Thank you.