04/14/2012, 00.00
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FIA ignores pro-democracy protests, goes ahead with Formula 1 Grand Prix

In recent days, thousands of people have taken to the streets demanding reforms, democracy and the release of jailed activists. FIA boss Bernie Ecclestone claims all is quiet, that protests are a media fabrication. The Grand Prix brings in half a billion dollar to the state coffers.

Manama (AsiaNews/ Agencies) - The Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) will go ahead with the Bahrain Formula 1 Grand Prix despite pro-democracy anti-government protests.

In a statement issued early on Friday, the FIA said it was "satisfied that all the proper security measures are in place" for the race on 22 April.

However, more than 5,000 demonstrators and police faced off near the capital Manama yesterday. A few people were injured and dozens were arrested.

Protestors were demanding the release of hunger striker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja who was arrested during the Arab spring last year during pro-democracy demonstrations.

Sentenced to life in prison in April 2011, he has been on a hunger strike since 8 February.

After 63 days without food, the authorities moved him on Wednesday to military hospital. His health remains in critical conditions.

Bahrain is predominantly Shia but its ruling royal family is Sunni and allied to Saudi Arabia.

For over a year, people have been demanding constitutional reforms and the removal of Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifah ibn Salman al-Khalifah, in power since 1971.

In March 2011, inspired by the Arab spring, the Shia opposition organised a popular uprising. The government crushed it with the help of Saudi Arabia, which sent in Special Forces to shoot at protesters. Twenty-four people died in the clashes, including four police officers.

Last year's tensions forced FIA to cancel the race, which brings in some US$ 400-500 million in the state coffers.

Unconcerned this year by the country's social and economic crisis, Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone responded to Grand Prix critics by blaming the media for fabricating a story.

"There's nothing happening (in Bahrain)," Ecclestone said. "I know people that live there and it's all very quiet and peaceful."

"All the teams are happy to be there," added the 81-year-old.

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