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Demonstrations rev up ahead of Bahrain Grand Prix

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 2:11 PM EDT, Fri April 20, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Opposition groups promise demonstrations ahead of the Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix
  • The Formula 1 race will be held this weekend
  • Bahrain security forces have been criticized for being too harsh on demonstrators

(CNN) -- Bahrain authorities arrested demonstrators Wednesday as they tried to "disrupt public and private interests" ahead of this weekend's Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix, state media reported.

"The saboteurs (attempted) to disrupt the flow of the traffic and terrorized people," according to the state-run Bahrain News Agency. "They also assaulted citizens and policemen, hurling Molotov Cocktails, iron rods and stones."

Opposition groups have promised to demonstrate ahead of Sunday's Formula 1 race and beyond.

Over the weekend, the Bahrain Youth Coalition called for "popular days of overwhelming rage."

Motorsport's governing body elected last week to hold the Formula 1 in the Gulf kingdom after weeks of speculation.

In a news release issued Friday, the race's governing body said its president traveled to Bahrain in November and met with "a large number of decision-makers and opinion formers, including elected Shia members of parliament, the president of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, ambassadors from the European Union countries, the Crown Prince, the Interior Minister and many members of the business community.

"All expressed their wish for the Grand Prix to go ahead in 2012," it said.

The race, which was canceled twice last year because of concerns about safety, is due to run Sunday.

The owner of the host track, Bahrain International Circuit, said that the race should be trouble-free.

But protests have been occurring daily in the Shiite villages around Bahrain's capital and the clashes between police and demonstrators have been intensifying in the run up to the Grand Prix -- an event protesters see as a publicity stunt by the country's rulers to make the nation seem more unified that it actually is.

Also Wednesday, police used stun grenades to disperse a demonstration in the heart of the capital Manama in support of jailed activist Abduhadi al-Khawaja - who is on a hunger strike.

Al-Khawaja, 52, was arrested in April 2011 for his role in anti-government protests that began a month earlier with demands for political reform and greater freedoms in the Sunni-ruled, Shiite-majority nation.

In June, Bahrain found him and seven other Shiite opposition activists guilty of plotting to overthrow the country's royal family.

The government has said he can appeal his life sentence during a hearing April 23.

Al-Khawaja's hunger strike enters its 71th day Thursday.

International human rights groups have railed against Bahrain's crackdown on opposition protests.

An Amnesty International report released this week says human rights reforms in Bahrain are inadequate and have failed to provide justice for victims.

Human Rights Watch says Bahrain's police force has improved but is still too heavy handed.

"They chase these young people through the streets into houses, they throw tear gas into houses," said Tom Malinowsky, a group spokesman. "And that makes these young protesters want to come out in even greater numbers the next day."

After the Arab Spring uprising in Bahrain was violently crushed by security forces last year, the government says police reforms have been implemented, though senior officers acknowledge more progress is required.

"There are some steps that you could take immediately to solve a lot of the issues, however there are also issues that take longer to deal with like things that have to do with training, reorganizing staffing," said Maj Gen. Tariq al Hassan.

CNN's Yousuf Basil and Fred Pleitgen contributed to this report

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