MANAMA, Bahrain – Authorities in Bahrain on Friday stepped up security around the Formula One circuit at the start of the controversial Grand Prix racing weekend in the Gulf kingdom, roiled by political turmoil for over a year.
The 2011 Bahrain GP was canceled because of a wave of anti-government protests by the island's Shiite majority and punishing crackdowns by the Sunni rulers that have killed at least 50 people.
The 2012 grand prix race — Bahrain's premier international event — will take place despite appeals by rights groups for another cancellation and pressure from protesters, including a jailed activist on a more than a two-month-long hunger strike. There have also been allegations of widespread human rights abuses in the tiny, but strategic island that is the home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Additional security troops were deployed this week around the Bahrain International Circuit and across the capital, Manama. Supporters of the Shiite opposition plan to rally later Friday against the F1 race, which is backed by the ruling Sunni dynasty.
Shiites account for about 70 percent of Bahrain's population of just over half a million people, but claim they face widespread discrimination and lack opportunities that the Sunni minority has. The country's leaders have offered some reforms, but the opposition says they fall short of Shiite demands for a greater voice in the country's affairs and an elected government.
Clashes between protesters and security forces have taken place almost every day for months. The unrest has intensified in the lead-up to the F1 race, including riot police firing tear gas and stun grenades at groups of opposition supporters rallying in the predominantly Shiite villages that ring Manama.
Authorities vowed zero tolerance for protests as they tried to present a sense of stability before the F1 weekend. The rulers have also billed the F1 race — expected to draw a worldwide TV audience of about 100 million in 187 countries — as an event that will put the divided society on the path of reconciliation.
On the track, teams will be practicing Friday and Saturday. The race is scheduled for Sunday.
Much of the protesters' anger has been directed at Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who owns the rights to the Bahrain GP. He is also the commander of the kingdom's armed forces, which the opposition supporters say have been enforcing the crackdown.
Last year, Salman was tasked to lead a national dialogue aimed at reconciliation between Shiite and Sunnis. The talks broke down without any compromise and have not yet resumed.