Bahrain has arrested several people accused of stealing and burning cars amid heightened security in the island kingdom before Sunday’s Formula One race, which the opposition sees as a chance to publicize its popular campaign.
Bahrain’s state news agency said late on Wednesday that authorities had arrested a man who later confessed to an incident in which a car burned and exploded in the country’s financial district on April 14.
Four other people accused of stealing and burning a car near a roundabout were also arrested. Another person was detained, being accused of blocking a main road and causing damage to a Bahraini’s car.
Bahrain’s main opposition bloc has called for peaceful demonstrations to be stepped up before the race, saying the global spotlight shone on the kingdom by the Grand Prix would help showcase its message of reform.
Amnesty International said human rights activists claimed dozens of protesters had been arrested ahead of the race.
“The authorities are trying to use the Grand Prix as a platform to show progress, with claims that the human rights situation has improved, whilst stepping up repression in order to ensure nothing disturbs their public image,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program deputy director in a statement on Wednesday.
“We are seeing nothing but crackdowns and token gestures to clean up the country’s image,” Sahraoui added.
Watched by millions around the world, the Grand Prix is the biggest sporting event hosted by the U.S.-allied country and the government is hoping for a healthy turnout at this year’s race despite continuing unrest.
Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday that Bahraini police had arrested 20 opposition activists. The Bahraini Center for Human Rights reported on similar overnight raids, detaining youths without showing warrants.
Bahrain’s government denied any arrests had taken place.
It also denies accusations by rights groups that it uses excessive force in cracking down on protests and says it arrests suspects in accordance with the rule of law.
A Saudi-led Gulf force entered Bahrain in March 2011 in an attempt to crush a popular uprising that had erupted the month before, but protests still occur almost daily. The two-year uprising currently has a death toll of around 88.
The Formula One race at the Sakhir desert circuit was cancelled in 2011 when protests were crushed and at least 35 people were killed. Activists say the number is far higher.