MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain, eager for Formula One organizers to reinstate a motor race postponed after popular protests erupted in February, acted to prevent any unrest on Thursday after lifting martial law earlier in the week.
Police patrolled the streets of Manama and villages around the capital to snuff out any pro-democracy protests before the world motor racing body meets Friday to decide whether Bahrain can stage its prestigious Grand Prix race this year.
Bahrain’s Sunni royal family imposed military rule for three months and brought in Saudi and United Arab Emirates troops in mid-March to help quell protests mostly by majority Shi‘ites.
The government says the end of emergency law this week is a sign that things have gone back to normal in the island state, on the frontline of the cold war between Shi‘ite power Iran and Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab dynasties allied with the United States.
Thursday the Interior Ministry said it had imposed an indefinite ban on fishing and other activities in the country’s northern waters. It gave no reason but the government accuses Iran of fomenting unrest through links to opposition parties.
“Let’s bring Bahrain Formula One back. Together we can,” signposts say in Manama.
Rights activists say emergency law was ended two weeks early in order to win back the Bahrain Grand Prix.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has said the sport’s governing body should weigh a heavy crackdown on opposition activists during 11 weeks of martial law when it makes its decision.
Military trials of 21 mostly Shi‘ite dissidents continue, but King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has offered new dialogue on reform with all sides, without spelling out its parameters.
Zainab al-Khawaja, the daughter of one of the accused, was questioned by police Thursday over whether she took part in protests, she said on her Twitter account. She held a hunger strike in April after her father was arrested and later charged, like the others, with seeking to overthrow the system.
The court sentenced six men Thursday to jail terms ranging from one to five years in prison for rioting and gathering illegally in public with intent to cause disturbance -- a reference to the protests -- the state news agency said.
Britain lifted a travel advisory this week but expressed concern over rights abuse.
“We remain deeply concerned by reports of human rights abuses, including the recent arrests of protesters and medical staff and the nature of the charges brought against them,” Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said Wednesday.
Shi‘ites staged small protests in several villages on Wednesday, despite checkpoints maintained by security forces. Internet footage posted by activists showed clashes involving teargas. The government said its forces did not open fire.
Ayat al-Qurmuzi, a student, appeared for the first time before the military court on charges of taking part in illegal gatherings and “inciting hatred for the system of government.”
She had read out a six-minute-long poem at the Pearl Roundabout, the epicenter of the protests, that called on the king and ruling Al-Khalifa family to implement reforms.
Her family, who met her during the session, told rights activists she had suffered abuse in detention such as spitting in her mouth and wiping her face against a toilet, the activists said on social media.
Several activists and opposition politicians, including rights activist Nabeel Rajab and Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of the main Shi‘ite group Wefaq, were called in for questioning on Tuesday before martial law ended. Wefaq said Thursday it welcomed the king’s call for talks, as of July.
An online petition opened Thursday asking Formula One teams to boycott the Bahrain event had garnered around 176,000 signatures by 2100 GMT.
“We call on you to declare publicly that you won’t race in Bahrain this year, because the government has killed and injured hundreds of innocent people standing up for their rights,” it said.
An employee of the state-owned Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) said 28 of 108 staff members had been fired. He said all 28 were detained and abused, and five remain in detention, including its chief financial officer, Jaafar Almansoor.
He said all the detainees were Shi‘ite and many had taken part in or expressed support for the protest movement. The government has purged hundreds of Shi‘ites from state jobs. It is not clear how many were arrested in total or remain in jail.
“They have abused everybody, until the last day we were released,” the man, in his 20s, said, requesting anonymity.
Police made the detainees sign papers saying they were prepared to be called back in for questioning at any stage, which would circumvent the end of emergency law this week.
The employee said his termination letter stated wrongly that he had been absent from work, but he first heard from police during detention that he was to lose his job.
“They made us beat and kick each other,” he said, cataloguing 20 days of abuse. “They said they’d rape us. They tried to touch you in various places to make you feel it’s going to happen.”
He said they were insulted for being Shi‘ites, with interrogators suggesting they engaged in a form of temporary marriage known as mut‘a at the Pearl Roundabout encampment.
When they left, their wounds were cleaned up to remove evidence of abuse. “They told us not to talk to media to show people that we were tortured,” he said.
A BIC spokesman did not reply to telephone calls.
Editing by Alistair Lyon/Maria Golovnina