International pressure mounts over jailed Danish activist

The Bahraini F1 Grand Prix may be called off due to security fears as protestors continue to clash with police over Abdulhadi al-Khawaja

Demonstrators demanding democratic reform in Bahrain were beaten and shot at by security forces last year, leading to international condemnation and the cancellation of the Bahrain Grand Prix.

But hope that the Grand Prix would return this April 22 is now fading, as the continuing strife in the country has led to calls that the F1 race once again be postponed.

On Tuesday, F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone said that the contract with Bahrain may not be renewed while other prominent voices from the racing world argued that race should be called off.

International pressure on Bahrain has been mounting after the authorities refused to hand over Danish pro-democracy activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a decision that was condemned by the UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon.

The security situation in Bahrain may also be worsening after seven policemen were injured by a homemade bomb on Monday night in a village near the Bahraini capital, Manama.

While the race can only be called off by the sport’s governing body, the FIA, Ecclestone said that so far no racing teams had expressed any concern to him.

“Quite the opposite,” he said, according the British newspaper the Telegraph. “One of the teams sent a person over there recently – and I’ve spoken to them today actually – and they said everything’s perfect, there’s no problem.”

The newspaper also quotes Zayed Al Zayani, chairman of the Bahrain International Circuit, who argues that the race is ready to go ahead and criticised “armchair observers” who “have been driving this debate at the expense of those neutral parties who have taken the trouble to investigate the situation at first hand”.

Despite their assurances, human rights organisations have questioned how appropriate it is that the race is going ahead given the tense security situation.

"On the ground we see an increasing number of deaths, and serious injuries from tear gas and beatings," Joe Stork, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch, told the BBC. "We're seeing in the last couple of weeks a spike in confrontations, and clashes, with very deadly results."

Over the past 30 years al-Khawaja – who adopted Danish citizenship while living here in exile in the 90s – has worked to secure greater freedoms for the majority Shia Muslim population in the tiny Gulf state largely ruled by Sunni Muslims and supported by Saudi Arabia.

He was arrested and convicted to life in prison for his role in peaceful anti-government demonstrations last year. He began his hunger strike in February in protest of his conviction, but despite the strike entering its tenth week, international diplomatic pressure on Bahrain to release the activist into Danish custody has so far proved futile.

As a result, the Danish press has been calling on global leaders to take a stronger stand against the Bahraini regime and the Bahraini King Khalifa, who a year ago last February was awarded the Grand Cross of the Dannebrog, the second highest royal order, by the Queen Margrethe.

“An appeal from Margrethe is perhaps exactly what is needed to make the Bahraini authorities release al-Khawaja,” political expert Henrik Qvortrup wrote in metroXpress newspaper. “The threat of losing the prestigious Grand Cross may get the Bahraini king to pardon al-Khawaja.”

While both the Danish PM, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and the foreign minister, Villy Søvndal, have been working to secure al-Khawaja’s release, political party Enhedslisten argues that it is about time the queen used her relationship with the Bahraini King to make diplomatic progress.

“My impression is that Bahrain enjoys its royal relationships and I am sure their ruler was pleased with the lovely medal he received,” MP for Enhedslisten, Per Clausen, said on Radio24syv.

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