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Pressure mounts on Bahrain as hunger striker reaches 62nd day (+video)

Bahrain has been trumpeting its return to normalcy ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix that begins April 20. But now there is increasing pressure to cancel the car race.

Protesters gather in support of hunger striker
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In most countries, the supercharged Formula One (F1) car-racing circuit is marked by decadent celebrations, high-profile guests, and hundreds of millions of dollars of international investment.

Bahrain missed out last year, when its plans to host the event were canceled after dozens of Arab Spring protesters were killed in clashes with security forces.
 
The tiny Gulf kingdom was determined not to miss out a second time, and declared ahead of this year’s April 20-22 event that all is back to normal. The country’s slogan, “UniF1ed” – united behind the F1 race, was draped on banners lining skyscrapers, highways, and shopping malls.

But activists are trying to leverage the event to garner international support for their campaign for greater rights, particularly for the country's downtrodden Shiite majority. Amid persistent abuses and the increasingly desperate hunger strike of prominent human rights activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, speculation is growing  that the race may be cancelled again.

For weeks leading up to the race, youths have gathered in the late afternoon in Shiite villages such as Abu Saiba to protest the event. Young men block the roads with debris, march through the streets until the security forces moved in by foot, and then retreat as tear gas rains down. Abaya-clad women scribble anti-F1 messages on the scarves they used to block tear gas from entering their mouths.

“We don’t want the F1 to be in Bahrain until the government respects human rights,” says Said Yousif, a leader at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) who sees the event as a way to give undeserved legitimacy to the government. Youths use even more blunt language.

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