As Formula 1 drivers practiced for a race in Bahrain on Friday, tens of thousands of protesters poured onto a highway to agitate against the event, heralded by the monarchy as a sign of unity in the island nation.
The decision to hold the race Sunday has angered dissidents and human rights groups who say it props up government claims that all is well, papering over continued abuses.
Though the Manama highway protest rally had been granted a permit by the government, riot police fired stun grenades and tear gas at a breakaway group of protesters who headed to Pearl Roundabout, a heavily guarded area that was the hub of opposition protests last year, the Associated Press reported.
The protests also went digital: The Anonymous hacking group took down a Formula 1-related website on Friday and replaced it with a call to free Abdulhadi Khawaja, a jailed activist who has been on hunger strike for more than two months, and to end torture and stop using tear gas against civilians.
Bahrain has been divided by protests aimed at its Sunni Muslim monarchy for more than a year, as dissidents push for more political freedoms and a greater voice for Shiites. Bahraini authorities have condemned many of the marchers as thugs bent on attacking police with fire bombs and stones. A sweeping crackdown on the first wave of protests last year only added to calls for change.
The automobile race was called off last year because of the unrest, but scheduled as usual this year despite the ongoing protests. Authorities have celebrated the race as a sign that the Persian Gulf nation is "UniF1ed." Crown Prince Salman said Friday that canceling the race would only "empower extremists," while "having the race allows us to build bridges across communities," Reuters reported.
Although the government created a commission last year to investigate abuses, an unusual step praised by outsiders, human rights groups say the country's leaders haven't heeded all of the panel's advice, continuing to imprison peaceful protesters and brutally breaking up demonstrations. A Human Rights Watch staffer argued that Formula 1 "has played into the government’s narrative to gloss over Bahrain’s continuing human rights crisis.”
Formula 1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone has insisted that Bahrain is peaceful and criticized the news media for playing up tensions, the official Bahrain News Agency reported. "You want a story to write about and that's all. ... Nothing has changed," he was quoted Friday as the first practice rounds for the race began.
Several journalists were denied access to Bahrain, even as other reporters who routinely write about the races were allowed in, the Guardian reported. The government also shut out foreign journalists earlier this year as a protest anniversary approached, saying it had gotten too many requests for entry.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Video: Images uploaded by Bahraini opposition activists to YouTube purport to show protests in Manama on Friday.