Bahraini police briefly detained two international human rights officials and scores of Bahrainis on Sunday, as the country struggles to depict a picture of calm ahead of the controversial hosting of the Formula 1 Grand Prix this weekend.

Police detained Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, and Nadim Houry, the organisation’s deputy director for the Middle East and north Africa, as they observed protests in the village of Duraz. They were not targeted specifically and were released after a few hours, after showing their permission to be in the country, Human Rights Watch said.

The detentions come as a blow to Bahrain’s campaign to persuade the international public that the country has returned to normal, ahead of their hosting of the Formula 1 race. Anti-government opposition activists are hoping to use the event to promote their demands under the media spotlight.

“We don’t want this to become the story, there are a lot of things that we’re trying to highlight,” said Mr Houry, adding that he was treated well. “There’s a broader issue here, there are still protests being dispersed violently almost every night.”

The Human Rights Watch employees were arrested alongside prominent Bahraini human rights activists Said Yousif Almuhafadhah, and scores of other Bahrainis present at the gathering. Mr Almuhafadhah was later released.

Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, a Bahrain government spokesman, said the detentions were a result of the officials attempting to observe an unauthorised protest.

“There are protests that are sanctioned and allowed by the government and there are those that happen at night that turn out to be sometimes violent, the burning of tyres etc, acts of violence,” he said. “When those happen it’s not in the interest of media or international agencies to attend those. They can be encouraged to do more when there are international observers near them.”

An independent commission has slammed Bahrain for the systematic use of torture and the excessive use of force to contain pro-democracy protests that broke out in February last year.

The country has clamped down on entry visas since the unrest. Human Rights Watch were only granted half of the visas they requested for this trip, and have only been granted access twice in the last year, said Joe Stork another Middle East and north Africa deputy director at the group.

The country is under increasing pressure to maintain security after threats by opposition activists.

The February 14 Youth Coalition, an online organising group for anti-regime protests, has said it would not be able to “ensure the safety” of Formula 1 participants amid popular anger that would be triggered by the race going ahead.

Bahraini officials have repeatedly played down those threats.

“I don’t think anything drastic will happen. It’s not Afghanistan, it’s not Syria. I don’t see why anything should happen this year that hasn’t happened in the previous years,” Zayed al-Zayani, Bahrain’s circuit chairman, told Reuters on Monday.

Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone has said the race should go ahead, despite a growing number of international rights groups calling for it to be cancelled.

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