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Bahrainis rally against Formula One race

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Thousands march outside ManamaThousands of pro-democracy protesters marched through a village outside the Bahraini capital on Wednesday, the latest in a week of demonstrations ahead of this weekend's hotly disputed Formula One grand prix.

The rally in Tubli was organised by Al Wefaq, the largest Shia opposition party. Demonstrators chanted slogans against the race and against the government, according to witnesses.

About one hundred people gathered in central Manama for a separate march organised by human rights activist Nabeel Rajab. Riot police used sound bombs to disperse the group after about an hour. Their response was unusually restrained, according to witnesses; similar rallies in the past were broken up within minutes with volleys of tear gas.

Activists have vowed to hold daily protests in the run-up to race weekend, which begins with a practice on Friday morning. The government has responded by arresting more than 80 activists, according to local rights groups, which describe a state of "undeclared martial law."

'Stop racing on our blood'

The protests came hours after crown prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa made a rare visit to Sanabis, a village which has emerged as a major stronghold for the opposition, to attend the funeral of a business executive.

He was confronted as he left by a small group of peaceful protesters, some of whom chanted "the people demand the downfall of the regime." Several held a poster showing the faces of people killed by security forces. A video of the incident was posted on YouTube.

It was a very public rebuke of the crown prince, the main backer of the Formula One grand prix, just days before the race. The opposition has generally been more muted in its criticism of Salman, still widely viewed as a rare reformist ally within the royal family.

The Formula One race is big business in Bahrain: The most recent grand prix, in 2010, drew 100,000 visitors and generated a half-billion dollars in revenue. Last year's race was cancelled because of widespread unrest; the government is keen to present this year's race as a sign that Bahrain is returning to normal. Billboards and posters across the country bear slogans like, "UNIF1ED: One country, one celebration."

But near-daily violence continues in much of the country. A damning report issued in November by an official commission accused the government of widespread human rights abuses, and - despite a few token efforts at reform - opposition activists say torture, warrantless arrests and the indiscriminate use of tear gas are still common. A report issued on Tuesday by Amnesty International criticised the government's reforms as inadequate.

The opposition has campaigned to have the Formula One race cancelled. Activists have painted their own slogans on walls and buildings across the island. "Boycott F1," says one; another urges drivers to "stop racing on our blood."

Some Formula One teams have expressed concern about the security situation in Bahrain. But Bernie Ecclestone, the owner of the commercial rights to Formula One, said last week that the race should go ahead. He described the country as "quiet and peaceful," and denied that anyone had been shot during the unrest in Bahrain, according to the AFP news agency.

In fact, a protester was shot as recently as last week, when 15-year-old Mohammed Ahmed Abdel Aziz was shot in the chest by police - at a funeral for another activist killed by unknown gunmen.


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