DUBAI (Reuters) - Organisers of the Bahrain Grand Prix, a glitzy showcase for the Gulf island kingdom, insist it will go ahead this month despite political unrest, bitter sectarian divisions and street violence.
Last year's Formula One race was cancelled amid a harsh government crackdown on protests. Opposition activists calling for democratic reform want it called off again, condemning the glamorous big-money international event as a "tool of repression".
Bahrain's minority Sunni Muslim rulers invited in troops from Sunni neighbour Saudi Arabia to put down the uprising a year ago, which was led by members of Bahrain's Shi'ite minority, in a crackdown condemned by human rights groups.
The Grand Prix is the island nation's biggest sporting event, launched in 2004 by the crown prince, who is honorary president.
Opposition groups want the race, scheduled for April 20-22, stopped again.
"The regime is using these events as tools of repression, it seeks its legitimacy from these events, not from the people," said UK-based dissident Saeed Shehabi, who has been sentenced in absentia for involvement in an alleged plot to overthrow the monarchy violently.
"We'd like to stop this lifeline ... by stopping it, it shows the world that there is a crisis.
"They would like to boast to the world of a stable society and popular backing," Shehabi added. "We need this to show people that they are there by force, not by popular will."
"We have always campaigned against holding it in Bahrain because it is used as a tool against us. We want to blunt that tool."
There have been media reports of calls from within motor racing for it to be cancelled, too, with one unnamed team principal telling Britain's Guardian newspaper all the Formula One teams were hoping the governing FIA would call off the race.
Grand Prix organisers on Tuesday hit back.
Bahrain International Circuit chairman Zayed Al Zayani said "armchair observers" had been driving the debate.
"This, combined with the scaremongering tactics of certain small extremist groups on social networking sites, has created huge misconceptions about the current situation," he added.
Shi'ite Muslims, demanding curbs to the ruling family's power, stage protests almost daily. Police use tear gas against demonstrators armed with petrol bombs.
The latest focus of their unrest has been calls for the release of jailed hunger-striking opposition activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, sentenced to life for allegedly attempting to overthrow the monarchy.
One protest this week was followed by a bomb attack that wounded seven policemen.
Bahrain's Sunni Muslims have been taking to the streets too. A witness said a group of about 100 people gathered from Sunni districts on Wednesday to protest the attack on police and call for harsher measures against Shi'ite protesters.
TORTURE FOR "TRAITORS"
They accosted a motorist who honked his horn in a pattern that matched a chant opposition protesters use to call for the fall of Bahrain's king, he said.
"They stopped that car and smashed it completely before the police could do anything," the witness said. "When they tried to go toward Nuweidrat, the people there were ready for them with molotovs, and police kept them from clashing, firing tear gas."
A post on a popular online forum included pictures of men, some masked, gathered near an overturned vehicle at the site and surrounded by police vehicles, along with a statement signed "Youth of Riffa" warning of further attacks. The pictures could not be independently verified.
"If the acts of sabotage don't cease in the next 24 hours and the appropriate measures aren't taken, the Youth of Riffa will intervene with firearms against every traitor to the homeland," it said.
"Any traitor carrying out sabotage will be caught and decisively tortured to death."