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Bahrain Protesters Facing Increased Police Aggression As Motor Sport Returns To Gulf Kingdom

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Protesters in Bahrain have stepped up their campaign against the country's rulers and moved their demonstrations into the capital, where they have been confronted by security forces firing teargas and birdshot.

The move into Manama is the result of more 'aggressive' policing in rural areas, where previous demonstrations had been confined, and where anti-government activists were being increasingly attacked, their houses raided and subject to more police checkpoints.

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An anti-government protester is treated by a doctor for birdshot wounds

The change in tactics also coincides with another major motor sport event in the kingdom, just five months after the Bahrain Grand Prix, which caused more protests on the streets and widespread condemnation of Formula 1’s governing body, the FIA, and the sport's commercial boss, Bernie Ecclestone, who were accused of putting sport above human rights.

This weekend, the 6 hours of Bahrain is being held as part of the World Endurance Championship which has included races in the UK, the USA, Brazil and in France at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The WEC marks the return of the first sportscar world championship in more than two decades and is the pinnacle of endurance racing.

Pierre Fillon, the president of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), which runs the championship in partnership with the FIA, is more than happy for the WEC to include Bahrain in its calendar, saying the ACO was “looking forward to establishing the Spirit of Le Mans in the Middle East for the first time.”

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A riot policeman aims at Bahraini anti-government protesters in Manama on 7 September 2012

"The track and the facilities at the Bahrain International Circuit are amongst the best in the world and we are very pleased to be staging the first ever Le Mans style endurance race in the Middle East at this circuit," he added.

His views were backed up by Allan McNish, a double Le Mans winner and one of the most high profile racers in the sport who said he was "happy to be here in the Middle East."

"We followed the [F1] situation quite closely because we had a race coming up later in the season. I spoke to quite a few of the drivers and team members and their feeling was that the presence that was on the international media was blown out of all proportion as to what was happening on the ground," the Audi driver told The Huffington Post UK.

Hear what Allan McNish had to say about the situation in Bahrain

"There were some demonstrations but that was obviously very much targeted at the media profile of the sport coming to the country."

McNish said that he had not seen any protests or demonstrations since coming to the country but Saturday’s race comes just days after the daughter of an opposition leader was jailed for ripping up a photo of the Gulf nation’s king.

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Bahraini authorities allowed thousands of anti-government protesters to march outside the capital, Manama, on 31 August

Zainab al-Khawaja, a prominent activist, was given a two-month sentence for ‘destroying government property’, her lawyer Mohamed al-Jishi said. Her father, Abdulhadi, is already serving a life sentence for allegedly plotting to overthrow the state. He was one of eight activists and opposition figures jailed earlier this year and who lost an appeal against their convictions earlier this month.

The court’s ruling was denounced by rights groups and activists who have been protesting against the kingdom’s Sunni rulers, accusing them of limiting free speech and cracking down on campaigners from the Shiite majority. More than 50 have died in protests since February.

Only a few days ago, 29 people were arrested after a demonstration at a shopping centre in the capital, Manama, where rioters "threw Molotov cocktails, iron bars and stones" at police and shoppers, according to the police chief.

AFP reported that dozens joined the pro-democracy protest, which was called by the February 14 Youth radical opposition coalition, and chanted: “The people want the fall of the regime”, the slogan to last year’s Arab Spring uprisings that inspired Bahrain’s protests but which resulted in a bloody crackdown from the authorities.

There are varying estimates of deaths in the country caused by the protests but they range between 50 and 60 in the past year, while hundreds have been injured and thousands more imprisoned.

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Protesters hold posters with images of jailed human rights activist Nabeel Rajab during a demonstration in Bahrain on 26 September 2012

Recent clashes in Manama have marked the return of demonstrators to Bahrain’s capital and which coincided with the jailing of Nabeel Rajab in August on a number of charges, including one of taking part in an ‘illegal gathering’ which was a protest in Manama in February.

Mariwan Hama, Middle East specialist for Human Rights Watch, told The Huffington Post UK that protestors were now regularly defying the ban on demonstrations in the capital.

"In July the authorities had announced a plan to allocate certain areas for demonstrations," he said.

"But they made it clear that Manama was not included. However, there have been many 'unauthorised' small scale demonstrations in Manama, especially at night, and we have received reports that riot police allegedly used force to suppress them.

"Demonstrations are occurring on a daily basis."

Jihan Kazerooni, the vice-president of BRAVO, an organisation that helps the rehabilitation of victims of torture and violence in Bahrain, told The Huffington Post UK that the situation on the ground was "getting worse".

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A protester at a rally held outside Manama in September

Speaking from Bahrain, she said: “Every night there are demonstrators getting attacked with tear gas and now with bird shot. The use of bird shot guns by the police has increased. I don’t know why but they are more aggressive to the demonstrators. They’re raiding houses and checkpoints are back.”

Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, was jailed for three years, a sentence that provoked widespread condemnation, including a message of 'concern' from the United States, one of Bahrain’s most reliable allies. Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International, said the verdict marked “the end of the facade of reform in Bahrain.

"The international community can no longer be under the illusion that Bahrain is on the path of reform when confronted with such blatant ruthless tactics of suppressing dissenting voices. Bahrain’s international partners need to make this loud and clear to the Bahraini authorities."

Following Rajab’s jailing, more protests broke out, including one in which a 16-year-old boy, Hussam al-Haddad, was killed. Police said he was one of a number of protesters throwing petrol bombs and died after being taken to hospital.

"Hassam was hit by bird shot", Kazerooni told HuffPost. "They shot him at close range."

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Protests in Manama are becoming more frequent at night

Other witnesses have told the BCHR that he was then kicked and beaten by plainclothes men while uniformed police failed to intervene.

Kazerooni added that the protesters had moved back into the capital because of frustration.

"They're trying to practise their right to demonstrate. People were protesting in the villages but they were getting attacked, beaten, their houses raided and tear-gassed. They were getting so fed up to the point that they felt hopeless and saying ‘what do we have to lose?’

"People literally cannot grieve in Bahrain because they will be attacked."

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The demonstrators on the streets have been backed by a legal move in the past few days. A leading human rights group, the International Council Supporting Fair Trial and Human Rights, has lodged a complaint with the International Criminal Court against two Bahraini princes - Nasser Bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, and Khalid bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa - and a number of other officials, according to the Fars news agency.

At the same time, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva adopted the outcome of its Universal Periodic Review on Bahrain, a four-yearly review on the country’s human rights record.

The Bahrain government has accepted more than 140 of the 176 recommendations but that has not convinced activists monitoring the country.

Hama told the HuffPost that there was a big question mark hanging over the question of whether or not Bahrain’s rulers would fully comply with the recommendations because a precedent has already been set with the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry last year, which detailed “systematic patterns and practices of abuse by Bahrain’s security, military, and judicial branches.

“Bahrain also pledged to implement the recommendations of the royally appointed Bassiouni commission (released in November 2011), but so far it has failed to fully address some of the core recommendations of the report such as holding high-ranking officials accountable for human rights violations.”

Amnesty International also expressed its doubts.

“We’ve already seen Bahrain pledge human rights reform on the world stage – after the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry – but the sad reality is that such pledges remain hollow without real action to back them up,” said Amnesty’s Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director.

“Unless Bahrain’s government now puts into practice the UPR’s recommendations at the national level, this will have been just a hollow box-ticking exercise.”

See more on Nabeel Rajab in the video below