Manama: Authorities in Bahrain opened an investigation on Saturday after the body of a man was found near the scene of clashes between protesters and the security forces. Opposition groups claimed the man was killed by riot police in another possible blow to the Gulf nation as it struggles to quell unrest during the highly awaited return of the Formula One Grand Prix.
A statement by Bahrain's Interior Ministry said a probe was under way. The death nonetheless will likely intensify a wave of expected protests against the race.
At least 50 people have died in the unrest since February 2011 in the longest-running street battles of the Arab Spring. Bahrain's Shi’ite majority seeks to break the near monopoly on power by the ruling Sunni dynasty, which has close ties to the West.
The body was found in an area west of the capital Manama, where clashes broke out after a massive protest march on Friday.
Social media sites have urged more demonstrations as part of the opposition's effort to use the world spotlight from the race to press their demands for a greater political voice.
The protests have left the country's rulers struggling to keep attention on the buildup to the Formula One race — Bahrain's premier international event. It was called off last year amid security fears and Bahrain's leaders lobbied hard to hold this year's event in efforts to portray stability and mend the country's international image.
But protesters also have seized on the worldwide attention since race teams and fans began arriving this week.
"We demand democracy," and, "Down, Down Hamad," chanted some of the tens of thousands of opposition supporters Friday in reference to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, as they massed on the main highway leading out of Manama. Bahrain's monarchy is the main backer of the F1 race, and the crown prince owns the rights to the event.
Hours before the march, Bahrain's most senior Shi’ite cleric, Sheik Isa Qassim, delivered a strongly worded sermon that denounced authorities for making dozens of arrests of suspected dissidents in recent weeks. He called the intensified crackdowns before the F1 event were "as if we are entering a war" in the strategic kingdom, which is home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet.
Shi’ites account for about 70 percent of Bahrain's population of just over half a million people, but claim they face widespread discrimination and lack opportunities granted to the Sunni minority. The country's leaders have offered some reforms, but the opposition says they fall short of Shi’ite demands for a greater voice in the country's affairs and an elected government.
The unrest has put Washington into an awkward position. US officials have called for efforts to reopen political dialogue in Bahrain, but are careful not to press too hard against the nation's leadership and possibly jeopardise its important military ties.
In Washington on Friday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed the Obama administration's concern about "the increase in violence in Bahrain, especially leading up to the Formula 1 race”.
"These are unproductive, unhelpful acts in building the kind of meaningful trust and reconciliation that is needed in Bahrain," Nuland told reporters.
"We're calling for, again, Bahraini government respect for universal human rights and demonstrators' restraint in ensuring that they are peaceful."
Clashes take place nearly every day with demonstrators hurling firebombs and riot police responding with tear gas and sometimes firing birdshot. The main Shi’ite political group, Al Wefaq, says at least 50 people have been injured in the past two days when security forces fired pellets to disperse protesters.
The rulers have depicted the race — expected to draw a worldwide TV audience of about 100 million in 187 countries — as an event that will put the divided society on the path of reconciliation.
First Published: Saturday, April 21, 2012, 16:27