Bahrain Grand Prix in doubt amid tension over hunger striker
Concern over Abdulhadi al-Khawaja’s fate and bomb blast in Manama increases demands for race to be cancelled
A hunger striker who is feared to be close to death and a bomb blast that injured seven policemen have increased tensions over next weekend’s planned Bahrain Grand Prix.
Formula One supremo, Bernie Ecclestone, said on Tuesday that the racing teams would have the final say over whether the event goes ahead in the troubled Gulf state.
Family and supporters of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, an imprisoned anti-government activist who has been on hunger strike for more than 60 days, are growing increasingly concerned for his health after being denied contact with him since Sunday, when a judicial panel in Bahrain refused Denmark’s request to take custody of Khawaja, who is a Danish citizen. On Monday, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, urged Bahrain to consider reversing that decision on humanitarian grounds.
The Bahrain interior ministry reported that seven policemen were injured, three seriously, after protesters against Khawaja’s continued imprisonment detonated a homemade bomb during clashes with police on Monday night in Eker, a village outside the capital, Manama.
Protesters threw petrol bombs at riot police to lure officers before the explosion was set off, the spokesman said. The government said it considered the bombing, thought to be the first of its kind, “an act of terrorism”.
Speaking after the blast, which local observers said signalled a possible worsening in the security situation in the country following a year of unarmed struggle, Ecclestone said there were commercial reasons why teams should take part in Sunday’s race but admitted he could not force them to participate.
“We’ve no way we can force people to go there,” he told the Press Association. “We can’t say ‘you’ve got to go’ – although they would be in breach of their agreement with us if they didn’t go – but it doesn’t help. Commercially they have to go, but whether they decide to or not is up to them.”
Ecclestone said he would meet the teams and Jean Todt, the director of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the sport’s governing body, during preparations for this weekend’s grand prix in Shanghai.
Ecclestone added that no team had told him it wanted to pull out, but one team has told the Guardian the race should not go ahead because the only way it could be held safely would be with a “complete military lockdown”, which would not be acceptable to the sport or Bahrain.
Khawaja’s lawyer, Mohammed al-Jeshi, told news agencies on Monday that his family feared he had died as a result of the lack of contact since Sunday.
“Authorities have been refusing since yesterday all requests, made by myself and by his family, to visit or contact al-Khawaja,” Jeshi told AFP. “We fear that he might have passed away as there is no excuse for them to prevent us from visiting or contacting him”.
But on Tuesday, the government said that since Khawaja had been moved to the military hospital last week, he had been accepting fluids orally and intravenously and receiving medication to increase his potassium level. It said that after a medical review of his condition on Sunday and Monday by two medical experts “he seemed well and was co-operative, quite coherent, well oriented in time, place and person. He was able to move around and stand normally for some time and able to read and write.”
It said “he has not been continuously on a total fast”, but added that the fat tissue beneath his skin had disappeared, his liver was fatty and he was susceptible to infection because of his low white blood cell count. “If he continues [on] hunger strike and does not allow any medical interference his life will be in serious danger.”
Khawaja’s death would be likely to be met by widespread protests, with some anti-government activists said to be prepared to set aside their peaceful approach to direct more aggressive protests at police and the grand prix.
A leading opposition activist, Ala’a Shehabi, said Ecclestone told her in a phone call on Tuesday morning that he wanted to host a press conference during the grand prix for opposition leaders to give them a voice, telling her: “I want dialogue.”
“He told me he was very concerned with the situation and that he had spoken with the crown prince about Khawaja’s health and had been reassured that he was receiving nutrition,” said Shehabi.
She said she told him that their information was different and he may have been force fed, and that it would be impossible to hold any press conference at the track because of its control by the government. But she urged him to organise an alternative facility that could give the opposition a formal platform at the event.
“Bernie Ecclestone could become a facilitator for dialogue between the government and the opposition,” she said. “He could twist their arm with Formula 1 [by urging the release of Khawaja]. He could help dissipate the anger and people could think it is a good thing that Formula 1 is here.”