- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 16, 2013

SAKHIR, BAHRAIN (AP) - Formula One returns this week to Bahrain, casting the spotlight on an event that has defied criticism while a bloody political crisis has engulfed one of the West’s most important allies in the region.

The Bahrain Grand Prix has drawn less attention than a year ago when F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone in the final hours decided to go ahead with the race despite calls by some rights groups for a boycott.

But criticism has intensified in the past week, after explosions sparked security concerns and a Human Rights Watch report alleged that authorities rounded up activists living around the track in a bid to “silence” dissent ahead of the race on Sunday.

“The race is going ahead and our position is quite simply to call it out for what it is. It is a political event which will serve to gloss over serious rights violations,” said Nicholas McGeehan, a Gulf researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Similar to last year, team officials have mostly dodged the question of racing in Bahrain. However, Franz Tost, team principal of Toro Rosso, endorsed the race.

“I don’t see any problems going to Bahrain,” Tost said. “I’m looking forward to going there. Formula One is entertainment. We should not be involved in politics. We should go there, do our race.”

The competing messages over F1 were on full display this week in the Bahrain capital Manama, where huge signs promoting the race contrasted with tear gas and angry, anti-government chants echoing through some Shiite-majority villages.

Carrying portraits of people killed in the nearly three-year uprising and signs calling for a boycott of F1, protesters on Monday warned those attending the race will effectively have blood on their hands.

Ecclestone, as he has done in years past, has insisted that the circuit is safe and the race would go on. F1 organizers have said the race is crucial to the island nation’s fragile economy.

Ecclestone said he’d spoken to both sides last year and was prepared to meet with people representing the protesters and the authorities again if needed.

He said he knows people will use the country’s premier international sporting event to try to promote their cause.

Organizers would like the focus to be on the track, where another wide-open season is unfolding after Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso won the Chinese Grand Prix on Sunday to become the third winner in as many GPs.

Alonso ended a 12-race drought in Shanghai and is attempting to compete this year with three-time defending champion Sebastian Vettel.

It remains to be seen how many fans will come to Bahrain amid tight security and expectations of daily clashes between Sunni-led authorities and majority Shiites seeking a greater political voice.

Bahrain authorities this week said they would step up security following a gas-cylinder blast that set a car ablaze in the financial district. The attacks caused no injuries and limited damage.

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