"Bahrain is on fire, but race goes ahead", said one news headline this week. Yes, it's that time again. It's April, the birds are singing, the trees are in bloom and ... it's time for the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Like last year and the year before that (when the Bahrain race was cancelled), the imminent arrival of hi-tech racing cars, celebrity drivers, harassed team crews (and doubtless several crates of soon-to-be-wasted Moët) on the tiny island state of Bahrain has now become an annual occasion for examining the country's human rights record. That record, like the famous Formula One finishing flag, is ... well, extremely chequered.
- At least 72 people have been killed since the protests broke out in February 2011.
- Amnesty's adopted 20 individuals as prisoners of conscience - 14 have been in prison since they were arrested in 2011 and the rest were imprisoned last year.
- At least 80 children are held in adult prisons for participating in protests.
- In the last fortnight some 50 or so people have been detained in seemingly pro-active pre- Grand Prix swoops on peoples' homes by plain-clothed security officials.
- Meanwhile, there's an ongoing crackdown against those who "insult" King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah or the country's flag. (Hmm, flags again). Last November three men were jailed (4-6 months) for "insulting" King Hamad on Twitter, while last month six more people were arrested over their tweets about the king, one of them a 17-year-old (Ali Faisal al-Shufa). Meanwhile, on Sunday, with the Grand Prix just a week away, Bahrain's cabinet agreed moves to increase the penalty for offending the king, making it punishable by up to five years in prison.
- If Ali Faisal al-Shufa or the others end up behind bars they'll join people like prisoners of conscience Nabeel Rajab, Ebrahim Sharif, Hassan Mshaima', 'Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Ali 'Esa Mansoor al-'Ekri, Ghassan Ahmed 'Ali Dhaif and Mahdi 'Issa Mahdi Abu Dheeb (all held at Jaw Prison).
- People trying to mount fresh protests this week - including to raise awareness of those already unfairly jailed - face blanket bans on protests and the prospect of themselves being tear-gassed or arrested. Already this week boys at a secondary school (Al Jabriya School) have been tear-gassed after protests at the school.
- In some cases, as happened a few months ago, supposedly troublesome opposition figures have been totally stripped of their nationality.
- A general failure to even come close to implementing promised reforms after a damning international report on how the country handled protests on 2011. A year on from that report, Amnesty accused the Bahraini authorities of "making a mockery" of its own promises to implement reforms. The title of Amnesty's 46-page report said it all: Reform Shelved, Repression Unleashed.
- Of 96 official investigations of deaths in custody and during protests since 2011, almost a half (46 cases) have been dismissed due to lack of evidence of a crime or because the death was classified as "an act of legitimate self defence". Most of the victims' families have not been given explanations of why cases have been dismissed.
So the Bahrain Grand Prix is yet again a strange backdrop to the country's seemingly never-ending human rights woes. The head of Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone - who will now be well-used to the annual furore - has likened Bahrain's anti-F1 protests to demos against Baroness Thatcher's funeral ("look at those complaining about Mrs Thatcher. This happens all the time. People use these things when there is an opportunity"), which, actually, is right enough. We're talking, almost, about basic PR and basic protest opportunism.
As I said last year, the Bahrain Grand Prix is in fact a once-a-year opportunity for campaigners in the country to achieve real international prominence. It is, predictably, already picking up substantial international media coverage. Justin Gengler makes a similar point in a recent Foreign Policy article, and also notes that ever since the staging of the race in Bahrain in 2004 it's been a political flashpoint of one kind or another. That said, I sincerely hope we're not here again next April talking about fast cars and stalled human rights reforms. To return to the F1 chequered flag image, the truth is that human rights in Bahrain are becoming less a chequered good/bad picture and more of an all-black one. Maybe they should use a black flag to wave Sebastian Vettel across the finish line this Sunday...