MANAMA (Reuters) - Crowds of masked protesters hurled petrol bombs at police who fired tear gas back in Bahrain on Saturday, turning the streets into a battle zone on the eve of a Formula One Grand Prix that demonstrators say glorifies a repressive government.
Protesters were fired up by outrage over the death of one of their number, whose body was found sprawled on a village rooftop after overnight clashes with police.
Around 7,000 marchers held banners calling for democratic reforms. Some banners depicted Formula One race car drivers as riot police beating up protesters.
Bahrain’s government has spent $40 million to host the global luxury sporting event, hoping to demonstrate that normal life has returned to the Gulf island kingdom after it cracked down harshly on Arab Spring demonstrations last year.
But vivid televised images of streets ablaze threaten to embarrass Formula One and the global brands that lavish it with sponsorship.
“The government are using the Formula One race to serve their PR campaign,” said rights activist Nabeel Rajab. “It’s not turning out the way they wanted.”
Reuters journalists in Diraz near the capital Manama said police tried to move protesters off a roundabout by firing tear gas. Demonstrators hurled Molotov cocktails back.
Activists described clashes in several districts. Mohammed al-Maskati of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights said police used tear gas, rubber bullets and sound bombs on a crowd of several hundred protesters trying to reach a main road in al-Bilad al-Qadeem, a Shi‘ite neighborhood of Manama.
The neighborhood was home to Salah Abbas Habib, 36, whose body was found splayed on a corrugated iron rooftop. Opposition party Wefaq said he was among a group of protesters who had been beaten by police after fierce clashes on Friday night.
Habib’s death infuriates members of Bahrain’s Shi‘ite Muslim majority, who complain they have long been marginalized by the Sunni ruling family and have been treated brutally since the crackdown on protests last year.
A funeral march for Habib will probably take place on Sunday, once his body has been released to his family, setting the stage for riots during the big race itself.
Activists say his death takes the total dead since the uprising began on February 14, 2011 to 81, including police killed last year, a figure the government disputes.
“We are calling for the regime to fall, we can’t live with this regime, they abused our youth, our honor, they destroyed our mosques,” said marcher Ahmed Madani.
“Our initial demands were to elect a new government but after the disgusting abuse we received, all the people are asking for is for the regime to fall.”
The uprising forced the cancellation of last year’s Grand Prix, but this year the authorities were determined to stage it. Organizers and sponsors have ignored calls from human rights groups for a boycott. Thomson Reuters, parent company of Reuters, sponsors the Williams Formula One team.
Dozens of protesters tried to gather in the market area of Manama on Saturday evening but riot police - who protesters dub “mercenaries” since many are hired from abroad - prevented them from marching, telling them it was an illegal gathering.
Among those arrested at that protest was Zainab al-Khawaja, daughter of protest leader Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who is serving a life sentence for calling for the end of the monarchy and has been on hunger strike for more than 70 days. He stopped taking water on Friday, his family says, raising fears for his life.
“His situation is very dangerous,” said activist Rajab. “If he dies that will make people very angry.”
Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said on Twitter: “I wish the hunger striker comes back to his senses and stops what he is doing. Nobody wants him to die.”
Other villages where clashes were reported included al-Dair and Karkabad.
The head of Formula One’s governing body said the sport would suffer no long-lasting damage from the Bahrain event, despite the images of streets ablaze.
“I am not sure that all that has been reported corresponds to the reality of what is happening in this country,” International Automobile Federation president Jean Todt told reporters at the Bahrain circuit.
While sports journalists have been invited to cover the race, non-sports reporters from Reuters and some other news organizations have been denied visas.
Bahrain’s foreign minister said on Twitter he had received a call from his British counterpart William Hague asking for restraint and dialogue.
“I reiterated Bahrain’s position of commitment to restraint in the face of violence and commitment to dialogue and reform,” Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa wrote. “We all want reform, we all want peace, why can’t we all work together? Why violence?”
The protests have so far been kept away from the Bahrain International Circuit, where qualifying races were held on Saturday in advance of Sunday’s main race. Armored vehicles and security forces in riot gear have at times guarded the road to the race venue.
Bahrain’s Interior Ministry issued a statement saying it was launching an investigation into Habib’s killing. “The perpetrators of this crime, whoever they may be, will be brought to justice,” it said.
According to Maskati, three witnesses who took part with Habib in Friday night’s clash said he had been hit by birdshot while running away from police.
“They said they don’t know if he died from the birdshot or from being beaten up by security forces,” Maskati said, adding police appeared to know where his body was when they went to the village of Shakhura early on Saturday morning.
Bahrain, a financial hub and modest oil producer, is an important U.S. military ally and host to the Fifth Fleet, the U.S. Navy’s main outpost in the region.
It is the only one of the Gulf’s Arab monarchies with a Shi‘ite majority, and the only one where the prevailing order was seriously threatened by last year’s Arab Spring, which swept away long-serving rulers of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
During last year’s crackdown, Bahrain brought in troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia. Security forces cleared the streets and bulldozed the landmark Pearl Roundabout. Thirty-five people, including security personnel, were killed.
Since then, with protests and clashes continuing, Bahrain has invited in an independent commission to prescribe reforms and has enacted some, but human rights groups say there is still more work to be done. They say the kingdom’s rulers are using the motor race to improve their international image.
“We are committed to our program of reforms, but this week’s unbalanced coverage does little to help the progress we are already making,” a Bahrain Information Affairs Authority official said in a statement.
Hackers brought down the F1 website intermittently on Friday and defaced another site, f1-racers.net, to support what they described as the Bahraini people’s struggle against oppression.
At stake is a race that has drawn more than 100,000 visitors and generated more than $500 million in spending. It has been a symbol of pride for the ruling royal family since Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa brought the first Formula One Grand Prix to the region in 2004.
Some members of the 12 teams have witnessed clashes. Two members of the Force India team went home to Britain. Force India returned to the track after skipping a Friday practice.
Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone described general security fears as “nonsense”. Team principals say they are confident in security measures, which they describe as similar to arrangements at other Formula One races across the globe.
Opposition leaders say more than 100 protest organizers have been arrested in night raids in the past week and dozens have been wounded in clashes in which police have fired birdshot directly and live rounds into the air.
Additional reporting by Warda Al-Jawahiry and Andrew Hammond; Writing by Reed Stevenson and Andrew Hammond in Dubai; Editing by Peter Graff