Bahrain crown prince surrounded by angry demonstrators as opposition holds fresh protests


Bahraini Shiite Muslims holding up banners in an April 17 demonstration calling for cancellation of the upcoming Bahrain F1 Grand Prix.



Witnesses told Al Jazeera that an angry throng of anti-government demonstrators surrounded Bahrain's Crown Prince Sheikh Salam bin Hamad al Khalifa in a flashpoint city today, a high-profile confrontation that comes as the mainly Shiite-led opposition plans "days of rage" against this weekend's Grand Prix in the Sunni kingdom, said Reuters.

The crown prince has been a vocal supporter of the controversial Formula One race, an event decried by the opposition as one that legitimizes the regime.

An unverified video is circulating that shows the Sunni leader being confronted with anti-government slogans while attending a funeral in the restive city of Sanabis, according to the International Business Times.

Bahraini security forces today fired stun grenades to disperse a opposition demonstration being held at a Manama exhibit on the race, reported The Associated Press

The Guardian's Formula One correspondent Paul Weaver, reporting from Bahrain, described a very "volatile" environment there ahead of the major sporting event.

The Gulf Arab kingdom was prevented from holding the race last year in response to a violent clampdown on a pro-democracy protest, and activists had hoped for a similar cancelation this year.

Reuters today said security forces have arrested dozens of activists in the run-up to the contested event, while a main opposition group, the Wefaq, said the "days of rage" protests are not meant to reject the race itself, but to highlight rights abuses.  

"Formula One is a secondary issue compared to the question of long-term rights," Wefaq senior member Sayed Hadi al-Mousawi told Reuters today. "What we care about is our demands. We don't want to ruin the projects' of others."

Bahrain has been in political turmoil due to a 14-month-long uprising against the government inspired by the recent overthrow of longtime leaders throughout the Arab world. More than 40 people are believed to have been killed 1,600 arrested as authorities moved to quell the mainly Shiite-led uprising against the ruling Sunni monarchy. 

More from GlobalPost: Amnesty: 'rights crisis' in Bahrain despite reform pledge

Authorities have promised to respond to protesters' demands, but Amnesty International on Tuesday accused the government of instituting cosmetic reforms, citing ongoing "reports of torture and use of unnecessary and excessive force against protests" in a scathing report on rights abuses there.

Of particular concern is the jailing of prominent rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, whose case received international attention after he was arrested last April on charges of treason, accusations he says are politically motived. He is currently in his third month of a hunger strike in protest of the sentence.

Regardless, the race is on in Bahrain. The Grand Prix, billed as "UniF1ed for Bahrain" (try "Try F1asco," tweeted The Guardian's Brian Whitaker today), is set to kick off April 22. 

But the real competition will be between Bahrain's rulers and its restive population -- both of which will be trying to pull ahead on all the international attention.