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In Bahrain, Protesters Kept Away From Grand Prix


Sebastian Vettel won the Bahrain Grand Prix over the weekend. But in a larger sense, the winners were the race organizers. Their win was that they managed to hold the contest at all in Bahrain. The race was canceled last year by political unrest, part of the uprisings of the Arab Spring. The BBC's Bill Law has been covering this story. He's on the line.

Welcome to the program.

BILL LAW: Thanks very much, Steve.

INSKEEP: How did the organizers pull off the race given that there had been protests just a few days before?

LAW: Well, primarily with a massive police presence. The Shia villages where much of the protests have been taking place are relatively easy to seal off. And in terms of holding those people down and keeping them off of the streets that would lead to the Formula One circular site, that was a relatively easy thing for them to do with that massive police presence.

INSKEEP: And there had been at least one death in those protests before the race, is that right?

LAW: Yes. On Saturday morning, the body of a 37-year-old activist, he was found on the top of a shed. Now what I have been told is that he and another group of activists were fired upon with birdshot. The security forces are using bird shot. And the others were managed to get away, but he did not return to his home. His body was found the next morning.

The minister of interior says they are investigating the case, that the circumstances are suspicious. But that's about as far as they're prepared to go. Certainly, activists are very clear in their minds that this man died as a result of a police action.

INSKEEP: You know, I suppose if you were in the government of Bahrain, one of the messages of getting this race to go off normally would be that you're returning to normal life. But from what you're saying, it sounds like that is not the case at all.

LAW: Not at all. I think that you could say, yes, that the government won the round in terms of getting the Formula One back and getting it raced successfully to completion. However, because there was a large influx of foreign journalists, the story, which they really were anxious not to spill out, if you will, did spill out. And that was of this very strong police presence. The police themselves have been under fire for the excessive use of force, the excessive use of tear gas in these Shia villages. And there was little that was seen by foreign journalists that would suggest that the impunity with which the police have been treating protesters has changed at all.

This despite a damning report last November by an independent commission that was, to be fair, set up by the king, examining the situation in Bahrain last year. And that report said that the police used excessive force, that there was torture and detention. Five people died in detention. There was commitment by the government to do something about this. They hired two senior police officers. One, John Timoney, from - formerly the Miami police chief. Another very senior British officer, John Yates.

But what the protestors say and the activists say is that the police continue to behave with impunity, continue to beat protesters outside of police stations. Continue to use massive amounts of tear gas, although that abated in the last week when they reverted to birdshot. So they're not seeing on the ground any change. And this is change, after all, the government had agreed to undertake.

INSKEEP: Now, in just a few seconds here, this is a government that the United States and other Western nations have not pushed to remove. They found it too strategically important. But even after doing that, is the government even stable at this point?

LAW: Yes, I would say the government is stable. I think that the situation on the ground is that the government has made their point. They know that, as you say, that both the Americans and the British are not pushing too hard in terms of other countries or other in the regions. And the sense is that they can remain in place.

INSKEEP: OK. Mr. Law, thanks very much.

LAW: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Bill Law is a correspondent with the BBC. He's been covering events from London, events happening in Bahrain, where the Grand Prix did take place over the weekend.


INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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