The Bahraini police briefly detained two American human rights activists Sunday along with about 20 Bahraini citizens who were protesting ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix Formula One race scheduled for next weekend.
Human Rights Watch Washington Director Tom Malinowski and Nadim Houry, the deputy director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa division, were picked up along with the Bahrainis when police raided a demonstration, HRW's Joe Stork confirmed to The Cable Sunday evening. They were treated fine and were all released, including the Bahrainis, Stork said. The Americans arrived in Bahrain Saturday night to observe the protests surrounding the Grand Prix and to document the government's response.
"Out of our very short detention in
Treated well," Houry wrote on
his Twitter feed Sunday evening Washington time. "Thank
you to all those concerned. We came to monitor events, not to be the story."
According to an e-mail update distributed by the Al Wefaq political party, Bahrain's largest opposition group, Malinowsky and Houry were observing protests when they were detained.
"When some of the mothers and wives of those detained gathered around the police station to see their loves ones, they were attacked by riot police who shot up to 15 stun grenades at them," the e-mail said.
After being released, Malinowski told The Cable in an e-mail that the demonstration he was observing before being detained was non-violent but was dispersed with tear gas, noise grenades, and pepper spray.
"This is a nightly happening all over Bahrain now. The unresolved political tensions are being manifested on the streets, with increasing anger on both sides. The only solution is to give people a peaceful outlet for expressing their opposition to the government and, more important, a process that will address their legitimate political grievances," he said.
"Most of the young Bahraini protesters were beaten a bit upon arrest. We have heard from many others with recent accounts of torture in the hours after their arrest. These are brutal tactics which make the situation worse for everyone, including the government."
The Bahraini embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The 2011 Grand Prix was cancelled in March, 2011 due to the protests on the streets of Bahrain's capital Manama and the objections of several Formula One drivers. In the lead up to the 2012 event, scheduled for April 22, the government has been cracking down on protests. On April 13, thousands of protesters defied the government and attended the funeral of activist Ahmed Ismaeel, who was killed in a protest last week.
Last week, Stork explained that Human Rights Watch was not officially urging Formula One to cancel the event, but he said the racing organization was choosing sides by going forward with the event and signaling its support for the Bahrain government and its actions.
"I think that they [F1] will have some explaining to
do. I can easily imagine that the security will be such that you won't have the
race disrupted on the track and I imagine that they can keep that under
control," Stork told
Autosport.com. "But if you have
a situation where there are demonstrations on a nightly, if not daily basis,
clashes with security forces who aren't known for the most sophisticated crowd
control techniques is not going to be good."
"It's not going to be good for Bahrain, it's not going to be good for F1 either if it happens either during the race or when it's clear that the demonstrations are primarily aimed at stopping the race. That's what the story will be," Stork said.
The Grand Prix also comes as tensions heighten over the fate of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the jailed Bahraini human rights activist who human rights groups say may die soon due to an ongoing hunger strike.
Nabeel Rajab, president of Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said last week that the Bahrain government was ramping up arrests and detentions ahead of the race to try to ensure that protests would not disrupt the festivities.
"They have put profits and their interests before human rights. The situation [in Bahrain] has worsened. The number of people who were killed from the beginning of the year till now is more than people killed last year," Rajab told The Media Line.
Last week, the Guardian quoted an unnamed F1 team member who said there was widespread discomfort among race participants about the tensions surrounding the race.
"I feel very uncomfortable about going to Bahrain," the team member said. "If I'm brutally frank, the only way they can pull this race off without incident is to have a complete military lockdown there. And I think that would be unacceptable, both for F1 and for Bahrain. But I don't see any other way they can do it."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.