On April 22, the royal family of Bahrain is determined to stage its annual Formula 1 Grand Prix race. This might not sound like scintillating news, but whether the event goes off as planned is a question with major ramifications for the royal Khalifa family, as well as for the democracy movement in the gulf kingdom. It will also be viewed closely by the US State Department and human rights organizations across the globe. From a renowned prisoner on a two-month hunger strike to a British billionaire fascist sympathizer, the sides have been sharply drawn.
For the Bahraini royals, staging the Formula 1 race is a chance to show the people that normalcy has returned following last year’s massive pro-democracy protests. In 2011, the race was cancelled to the rage of the royals. Now, the royal family is hoping that the sixty people slaughtered by Bahraini and Saudi forces, as well as the thousands arrested and tortured, can be forgotten in the roar of the engines.
For those protesting in the name of expanded political and personal freedoms, the return of the F1 racing series as a slap in the face, given all they’ve suffered in the last year and continue to suffer today. Now the protest movement and human rights organizations are calling upon Bernie Ecclestone, the CEO of Formula 1 Grand Prix, to cancel the race.
Maryam al-Khawaja, head of the foreign relations office at the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, said:
The government promised changes last year but no changes have taken place because there is no incentive to make them. And tortures are still taking place. The government want the message to go out that it is business as usual. But today armored vehicles went into residential areas for the first time since last year’s martial law ended in June. I have heard reports of protesters being thrown from rooftops and others having legs broken. That it is why Formula One should make a stand and call this race off.
At a mass anti-F1 rally, Ali Mohammed commented to the AP, “We don’t want Formula  in our country. They are killing us every day with tear gas. They have no respect for human rights or democracy. Why would we keep silent? No one will enjoy the F1 in Bahrain with cries for freedom from the inside and outside of the race.”
Then there is prominent activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who has been on hunger strike for more than fifty days. Calls for his immediate release have merged with calls for the F1 cancellation. Protesters are described as holding al-Khawaja’s picture in one hand, and a “no to F1” sign in the other.
1996 F1 champion Damon Hill of the UK, who is now a commentator for Sky News also expressed his concern, saying, “It would be a bad state of affairs, and bad for Formula One, to be seen to be enforcing martial law in order to hold the race. That is not what this sport should be about. Looking at it today you’d have to say that [the race] could be creating more problems than it’s solving.”