Bahrain has been rounding up pro-democracy activists ahead of its controversial staging of the April 21 Formula One Grand Prix two years after a bloody crackdown, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
Plainclothes police officers have arrested 20 people so far in raids in towns around the Gulf state’s Sakhir circuit, the New York-based watchdog said.
“Bahraini authorities are carrying out home raids and arbitrarily detaining opposition protesters in advance of the Formula 1 Grand Prix weekend,” it said.
“These raids and detentions suggest that officials are more concerned with getting activists out of circulation for the Formula 1 race than with addressing the legitimate grievances that have led so many Bahrainis to take to the streets,” said HRW’s Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson.
“The Bahraini authorities have a responsibility to ensure the safety of those attending the Formula 1 Grand Prix, but that should not extend to arresting people for exercising their legitimate rights to free speech and assembly.
“Night-time raids of targeted people by masked officers who show neither arrest nor search warrants appear intended to intimidate them, their families and their supporters,” she said.
Opposition groups announced Wednesday they would organise a nine-day campaign of rallies and demonstrations across Bahrain under the slogan of “Democracy is our right”.
The “peaceful escalation will include a bundle of political and public activities… and an increase in protests and peaceful rallies,” said the opposition, which is led by Al-Wefaq main Shiite formation.
The statement made no mention of the Formula One race as a motive for the protests which will begin on Friday.
Sunni-ruled Bahrain was rocked by month-long pro-democracy protests led by the kingdom’s Shiite majority in early 2011 that were crushed with the help of Saudi-led troops.
Last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix was accompanied by a week of angry Shiite-led protests but demonstrators stayed away from the desert circuit and the race passed off without incident.
A total of 80 people have been killed in Bahrain since the protests erupted in February 2011, according to the International Federation for Human Rights.