Motorsport: Bernie bites back at Bahrain F1 protesters

GP chief defiant as British politicians join protests against his controversial event

A poster in the Bahraini village of Malkiya highlights opposition to the grand prix, which protesters say is helping the country's repressive government. Photo / AP
A poster in the Bahraini village of Malkiya highlights opposition to the grand prix, which protesters say is helping the country's repressive government. Photo / AP

Bernie Ecclestone has likened Bahrain anti-government protesters who on Sunday detonated a car bomb in the capital city, Manama, to "those complaining about Mrs Thatcher".

The 82-year-old, F1's commercial rights holder, risked enraging activists opposed to this weekend's grand prix in the troubled Gulf kingdom with his comparison between their claims of police brutality and left-wing campaigners seeking to disrupt Baroness Thatcher's funeral procession.

Attending his first race of the season in China, Ecclestone urged reporters to "tell the truth" about Bahrain, saying he had no concerns about hosting the event in the strife-torn country.

But his parallel with the demonstrations in London since Lady Thatcher's death threatened to enrage Bahraini anti-government groups.

The car explosion in Manama late on Sunday night took place in the city's Financial Harbour district, and a militant group calling itself the February 14 movement claimed responsibility.

Bahrain's Ministry of the Interior said there were no casualties.

Villagers in poorer Shi'ite areas away from the Sakhir circuit are also alleging that King Hamad's regime is using the money from F1 to enforce further repression.

Ecclestone said: "I don't think the people who are arguing about their position are bad, and I don't think they're trying to hurt people to make their point.

"We have had all sorts of protesters - look at those complaining about Mrs Thatcher. This happens all the time. People use these things when there is an opportunity."

Seeking to reassure the race's opponents that the political situation is less volatile than 12 months ago, when Force India mechanics narrowly escaped being struck by a Molotov cocktail, Ecclestone said: "The big problem, from what I can see, is that you have a set of people who want to have more of a say in the way the country is being run. It's probably like our country, England - there are sectors there who see things the other side are doing wrong and would like things done their way. It happens worldwide."

His view appeared at odds with an account from Bahrain yesterday reporting tense skirmishes in the village of Al-Ahli.

Amani Ali, a 22-year-old female student, was quoted as saying of the grand prix: "Of course we are against it.

"The race brings money to the regime, which they use to buy weapons and attack us."

Although tomorrow's race is almost certain to go ahead, two years after it was cancelled at the height of Bahrain's violently suppressed revolution, political momentum in Britain is also gathering against the event.

Today Andy Slaughter MP and Lord Avebury will host a briefing at the House of Lords on behalf of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Democracy in Bahrain.

The group said that Bahrain had descended "deeper into a political crisis" and "any remaining principles or values of human rights are being trampled upon by Formula One as they prepare to take the sport, yet again, to a country which at present is a controversial and unsuitable location for any competition".

The group said yesterday: "F1 insisted on holding last year's grand prix and Bahrainis were killed, tortured and detained when they protested."

And it asked: "Is a country that is suppressing the rights of its people, and using sheer brute force to intimidate them, a place for sport of any kind?"

Ecclestone remains defiant, saying he has already met members of the main opposition movement, Al-Wefaq, in an effort to ease anxieties over F1's presence.

"When you talk to the person who represents the protesters, that person is very sensible and down to earth, and understands that both sides may be wrong," he said. "When I was there last year he said, 'I think we've more or less come to an understanding'.

"We are reasonably happy about that. Whether they have agreed or not, I don't know, but you will always get people that will want to make riots anyway."

But British MP Richard Burden has accused Ecclestone of a flippancy about Bahrain's problems, saying the F1 chief's stance "is not what I am hearing".

Former world champion Damon Hill has expressed worry about F1 being "hijacked" by Bahraini authorities and implicitly endorsing ruthless police tactics by travelling there.

Government spokesman Samir Rajab said: "The security situation is very reassuring."

But her remarks were immediately contradicted both by the explosion in Manama and by hordes of demonstrators close to the airport chanting, "Down with the Government. Sooner or later the people will achieve victory."

- The Daily Telegraph

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