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DUBAI (Reuters) - The Formula One race set for Sunday in Bahrain drew protests on Friday as activists accused the Gulf kingdom of again staging the annual event to paper over human rights abuses, four years after being forced to cancel it during Arab Spring uprisings.
Bahrain's majority Shi'ite Muslim community has used the annual Formula One occasion since then to highlight grievances over what they see as failed promises of democratic reform in the Sunni Muslim-ruled island country.
"The regime uses the race to say Bahrain should unite, while in fact they are cracking down and it's just used to burnish the government's image, to make more money and make it look like everything is just business as usual," Bahraini democracy activist Ala'a Shehabi told Reuters.
In the Shi'ite village of Duraz, hundreds of men streamed into the streets after Friday prayers waving Bahraini flags and posters of race cars written over, in English, with the phrases "free all prisoners" and "we demand equality and justice."
But pressure has built on their movement over the last year.
Top opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman was arrested in December on charges of "promoting the violent overthrow of the political system". Prominent activist Nabeel Rajab was arrested this month over tweets criticizing security forces.
Bahrain, important strategically because it hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet as a bulwark against Shi'ite Iran across the Gulf, has grappled with low-profile but persistent unrest since a Shi'ite-led revolt demanding reforms and a bigger role in government were put down in 2011 with the help of Saudi Arabia.
An Amnesty International report said this week Bahrain "continues to go through a political and human rights crisis ... Serious violations continue to occur and do so on an extensive scale".
In interviews with scores of alleged victims of torture and their relatives, the rights group reported beatings, electric shocks, rape, suspension by the limbs and sleep deprivation.
Bahrain's government dismissed the report.
"It glosses over these highly significant strides and the work of international experts and governmental partners," a statement on the state news agency BNA said.
"These efforts have culminated in the establishment of several independent oversight mechanisms ... to further strengthen legal guarantees for the protection of human rights, and to ensure accountability and justice."
Bahraini activists believe Western governments have not sufficiently pressured Bahrain because they are keen to avoid offending important allies in the energy-rich and strife-torn region, and were taken aback by Britain's announcement in December that it would reinforce its naval presence there.
Writing by Noah Browning; Editing by Mark Heinrich