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Protests raise fresh concerns over Bahrain GP

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Andrew Benson | 17:14 UK time, Monday, 9 January 2012

Fresh doubts have emerged about the viability of this year's Bahrain Grand Prix after a human rights group in the Gulf kingdom called on the Formula 1 teams to boycott the race in the wake of continuing civil unrest.

It is the first public intervention by an interested party on the subject of the wisdom of holding the race since F1's governing body the FIA confirmed Bahrain's place on the 2012 calendar last month.

Bahrain's inclusion on the official schedule raised eyebrows. That's because unrest continues there, despite pledges by the ruling royal family to increase human rights and democratic representation in an attempt to move on from the disturbances that led to the cancellation of last year's race.

The call for a boycott - by the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) - became public two days after police were accused of beating a leading opposition activist on the back, neck and head at a rally on Friday.

Bahrain GP

Bahrain's Sakir International Circuit has not had a Grand Prix since 2010. Photo: Getty

That man was the vice-president of the BCHR, Nabeel Rajab, who also happens to be the man who gave the interview calling for the boycott of the race.

Rajab told a leading Arab business magazine: "We will campaign for... drivers and teams to boycott. The government wants Formula 1 to tell the outside world that everything is back to normal.

"Formula 1, if they come, they are helping the government to say [it is normal]. We would prefer it if they didn't take part. I am sure the drivers and teams respect human rights."

F1, then, appears headed for another long-running saga over whether the Bahrain race can go ahead this year - just as in 2011, when it was four months between the outbreak of civil unrest and the race finally being cancelled.

During that time, it became clear that F1 commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone was keen for the event to take place, despite the concerns of many both inside and outside the sport that holding a race would send the wrong message.

Those concerns remain alive today.

Ecclestone was unavailable for comment, but I understand he and the FIA are still determined to hold this year's race.

At the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix six weeks ago, he told BBC Sport: "It's on the calendar. We'll be there. Unless something terrible happens to stop us."

Asked if he had any concerns about the race becoming a magnet for problems in the kingdom, he said: "No, I don't see that."

On Monday, the race organisers insisted the race should go ahead, pointing out that the government had already started down the path to reform and insisting that the race was "supported by an overwhelming majority of people from all sections of society in Bahrain and represents a symbol of national unity".

But within F1 teams, there are murmurings of unease. No-one will publicly comment on the situation, let alone call for the race to be boycotted, but some insiders do believe there is a strong chance the race will be called off.

For the teams and other stakeholders in F1, such as sponsors and suppliers, it is not so much a question of the lack of human rights in Bahrain per se. After all, it is far from the only grand prix venue where there are concerns on that subject; indeed, very few countries have blemish-free records.

Nor, assuming the situation in Bahrain does not escalate, does it seem there is a serious concern that the safety of personnel who would attend the race would be threatened.

Of greater relevance is the effect going there could have on the organisations involved.

The big problem with Bahrain is that the race is so closely tied to the royal family - particularly the crown prince, the King's son. So it will inevitably become a target for protests - as has now happened with Bahrain Human Rights Watch linking the two things directly.

Last year, the opposition declared a "day of rage" for the date of the race, and some in F1 say they expect a similar thing to happen imminently for race day this year - 22 April.

Once human rights groups have linked the race to the problems in the country, it becomes very uncomfortable for the major global companies in F1 to be associated with it. For them, it would directly contradict with their global social responsibility programmes, which have become so important to many international companies.

This is one of the main reasons the situation came to a head last year. While the teams were careful to say nothing along these lines publicly, several of them let it be known privately to Ecclestone and the FIA that either they or their sponsors were not happy about attending the race.

Among those with the biggest concerns were Mercedes - which runs its own team as well as supplying engines to McLaren and Force India - and F1's only tyre supplier, Pirelli. Neither was available for comment on Monday.

I'm told, though, that these two, among others, remain concerned about holding a race in 2012. If Mercedes were to decide not to go, that would mean a grid shorn of six of its 24 cars. If Pirelli followed suit, no-one could race.

It is unlikely to come to that, of course.

One insider said that, of those with the power to do so, no-one wants to call the race off, as whoever does will be out of pocket.

If Ecclestone or the FIA jump first, the Bahrainis don't have to pay their race fee, whereas if the Bahrainis themselves decide to call the race off, F1 gets to keep the cash. And when it is a reputed £25m you're talking about, that's a serious consideration, whoever you are.

Last year, it was Bahrain who ultimately made the call - after it became clear that there was a serious threat of a boycott if they did not.

Will it get that far this time? No-one knows, but Ecclestone is unlikely to be in any hurry to move the situation along.

What would you do if trouble did flare up in February or March, I asked him in Brazil.

"I'd wait and see what happened and then decide," he replied. "Up to now they [the Bahrain royal family] have done everything they said they were going to do."

The next two months are likely to be a game of brinksmanship over who blinks first, with quiet diplomacy taking place behind the scenes. Whatever solution is found is unlikely to be a quick one.


  • Comment number 1.

    Interesting to read about the teams' "concerns", they didn't appear to concerned about the UK TV deal which millions were against. Nor did they appear too troubled about travelling past slums and complete poverty to the luxuries of the Indian GP track.

  • Comment number 2.

    If there is still unrest in the country it would be very wrong for F1 to go to Bahrain and act like as if everything was fine. I admire Mark Webber who was the only driver who said it would be wrong to go to Bahrain the previous year. It would be great to have Bahrain back on the calender but only if the situation in the country was stable and that people's human rights were being respected there.

  • Comment number 3.

    At 21:52 9th Jan 2012, MartinAlonso wrote:

    Interesting to read about the teams' "concerns", they didn't appear to concerned about the UK TV deal which millions were against.


    Considering that the UK TV deal is at best a minor inconvenience, while what is happening in Bahrain is an opressed population that tried to rise up to have their own leaders of their own choosing and then being gunned down for it. You can see why there is a big difference in the level of concern.

  • Comment number 4.

    Unless there is some progress towards reform in Bahrain I cant see f1 going there next season. The moral issues will just be too large to ignore and will overshadow the event completely, not to mention ruining the reputation of the sport and all the companies involved.

  • Comment number 5.

    There are poor and underprivileged in every country. Here there are homeless, jobless and areas of poverty but we race here in the 'developed' world. India, America, its the same the world over.

    Should F1 go to Bahrain? Probably not. I'm not happy that sport and politics clash like this but problems have been reported there for years when F1 was going there. Its down to money vs the pressure that can be applied by the people of Bahrain.

    Bernie won't blink of that you can be sure. Have we got this now for three months?

  • Comment number 6.

    If you start 'boycotting' countries whose human rights record isn't that good, or some sponsors don't like, or a team/driver objects to - where do you draw the line, and who draws it?

    The deciding factor should be safety. If it's safe for teams, spectators and public to go, they should go, and leave the politics out of sporting decisions. If it isn't - if they think going will lead to riots, or the teams safety isn't secure - then they shouldn't. Still not an easy call, but that should be the only basis for the decision.

    Of course it will actually be made on money, but that's F1 for you - everything comes down to that in the end.

  • Comment number 7.

    I've just spent the last month over Christmas in Bahrain, and there really is hardly anything going on.

    These "peaceful" protestors wouldn't dare attack any Westerners anyway, for fear they'd lose some of the sympathy afforded them by the one-sided reporting of news agencies such as the BBC.

    And if we're talking about boycotting countries with supposed Human Rights abuses, why is F1 allowed to go to places like China, which surely has the worst track record in the whole world?

  • Comment number 8.

    The teams' travel insurers could pull the plug on the event if they refuse to cover team personnel. They would probably base their opinion on advice given by the Foreign and Commonwealth office. Should the FCO advise travellers not to visit Bahrain I cannot see insurers covering the teams

  • Comment number 9.

    Bernie won't call off the race, the money means too much to him. Sports and politics is always a sticky area but I wouldn't feel happy about a race being held there in the current circumstances, and I'm sure most of the F1 fans I know feel the same. Safety of the drivers, teams and sponsors will be the deciding factor at the end of the day. If there is still unrest in the country come March, hopefully the teams will see sense and make it clear that they will boycott. There are more important things in life than sport, this is one of them.

  • Comment number 10.

    I still don't know under what circumstances the Grand Prix has agreed to come to Bahrain. As the troubled island Kingdom’s government cracked down on protesters, about a quarter of the Bahrain International Circuit’s staff was arrested, tortured and sacked. I will urge all the drivers, sponsors, journalists, everyone, to stay in solidarity with us by not going to this event. This will be the sport of the oppressor's regime.

  • Comment number 11.

    Ecclestone is driven by money, always has and always will be, I doubt he gives a second thought to any of the local population in any part of the world. I expect him to wait until the Bahrain Royal family bottle it, or the teams boycott it out of principle or security concerns, either way Ecclestone will get his shekels. The only way he will come unstuck is if it goes ahead and something serious happens, at which point I'm sure he will have a good excuse as to why it wasn't his fault.

  • Comment number 12.

    Personally I don't mind if the race doesn't go ahead this year- it's not like I'd be able to watch it anyway.. ;)

  • Comment number 13.

    Does anyone else remember Bernie managing to get the races to still go ahead in South Africa throughout Apartheid? Just goes to show its all about the money for him.

  • Comment number 14.

    I don't think I've ever been truly "disgusted" with something related to motorsport because in the grand scheme of things, motorsport is not really that important. Starvation, injustice, oppression... those are things that are truly weighty. But the fact that F1 as an organization has not come out with an explicit statement decrying the situation and vowing not to have any dealings with such countries is disgusting. Absolutely disgusting.

  • Comment number 15.

    Why do we need a race in Bahrain now that we have one in Abu Dhabi just a few clicks down the road, anyway?

  • Comment number 16.

    @11 Martin, I couldn't agree more with what you have posted. There is still a lot of unreported unrest in that country. Well unreported in the Western press anyway.

  • Comment number 17.

    if they can get rid of valencia,bahrain and reports barcalona cannot afford the payments so barcalona track aswell and monaco bernie can add all the tracks he wants(russia,south africa,mexico,argentina etc)they have to be and are the most boring races every single year yes monaco as well the "tradition and prestige" doesnt do it for me,britains grand prix is more historical as we invented motorsport

  • Comment number 18.

    It's about time F1 gets that it gives credibility to these awful regimes by holding races in countries such as Bahrain. I agree with Don Hunter - F1 needs to take a stance and issue a public statement against these regimes. Unlikely because F1 is interested in one thing - money - as its stance re TV coverage highlights.

    Beware, Mr Ecclestone, your "spectacle", which is already boring (no real overtaking - drivers selected by their sponsorship deals not their ability etc) and transparently elitist is already loosing viewers. By continuing to align itself with regimes that abuse their people will accelerate the alienation your viewers. I will not watch races in these countries and urge others to boycott them as well.

  • Comment number 19.

    I understand not going to Bahrain if there is a real dander of F1 people being hurt, but to not go just because of an oppressive regime is, in itself, a political stance. China has an oppressive does Russia and they aren't the only F1 and potential F1 venues like that...does that stop F1 turning up? No. Because if it did, they'd never race anywhere. The F1 circus really does have to make sure that they're not going for the right reasons...and not just join in with the chorus of protestors.

  • Comment number 20.

    “7.At 23:05 9th Jan 2012, Darth_Krid wrote:
    I've just spent the last month over Christmas in Bahrain, and there really is hardly anything going on.
    These "peaceful" protestors wouldn't dare attack any Westerners anyway, for fear they'd lose some of the sympathy afforded them by the one-sided reporting of news agencies such as the BBC.”
    Would love to have stayed wherever it is you stayed in

    I am a fan of the race here in Bahrain and would like it back, but at what cost?
    Would have been great to not have politicized the event! The Gov. did it in 2011 and now the NGOs

  • Comment number 21.

    Interesting that the article implies that its going to come down to £25million pounds and nothing to do with human rights? Shouldn't one party or the other make a call and ignore the finacial risk!

  • Comment number 22.

    Everyone knows Bernie will do anything for a big payday, including going to countries were staging a grand prix is the least of thier worries!

    Are there any penalties for teams that boycott races on the grounds of safety/unrest? Or is it a case of one decision for all?

  • Comment number 23.

    The teams might not have to worry too much about doing 20 races this season after all. Seems that there is a risk of at least 4 GP's having the plug pulled on. I think most people have said this already, but surely it has to come down to the safety of all people involved in F1 on the weekend of the event. If the organisers feel that there will be trouble during that weekend, which will cause disruption to the event or even harm to the personel then the race should be cancelled. However if there is no risk then the race should go ahead. I'm sure it is not as simple as that though. Personally i would'nt have the race on the Calender in the first place, bring back a GP with an historic F1 background, one that established itself in F1 history and one that doesnt bring trouble with it, there are plenty of options.

  • Comment number 24.

    How can anyone cosider the race going ahead when torture and repression remain a key aspect of daily life for anyone who does not agree with the current regime. Could we really say that if this was happening in the UK we would want an international sporting event to be held here? It's not a political issue it's a moral one and sadly it seems monetary greed has corrupted too many.

  • Comment number 25.

    Tim at #8 is right, the UK Foreign Office could have a massive role to play in deciding whether the race goes ahead - ruling out UK based teams would leave a race between Ferrari, Sauber, Toro Rosso and HRT - assuming no other foreign offices did the same.

  • Comment number 26.

    @8 &25

    If that happend and the bigger teams pulled out, you'd probably have a repeat of the US GP in 2005, Were (minus Ferrari obv) the teams down the back of the grid take a punt on going to earn some points. I know it's a massive difference between an issue with tyres and one of team safety, but if HRT were presented with the chance were they we'd be finishing at worst 7th & 8th, it probably would cross their mind to take a gamble to go.

  • Comment number 27.

    Well, if we don't get a race at least we won't lose much of a spectacle. It's a very dull race.

    Maybe having F1 there would give a lot more media focus to the problems in the country.

  • Comment number 28.

    @17 AdrenilenePotato

    I don't think motorsport was invented in Britain - certainly not the Grand Prix - the first Grand Prix was actually held in France in the 1910s or early 20s I think. Granted, the first F1 race was held at Silverstone in 1950. Either way, Bernie is only interested in pounds, shillings and pence and you can bet your bottom ha'penny he won't be losing out if Bahrain is cancelled again. I do agree though that both current Spanish races are total bore-fests - Barcelona hasn't got an ounce of character or spectacle and Valencia is a rather large and expensive white elephant. If the Gulf states are to remain in F1, they need to come up with a racing circuit not a spectacle...

  • Comment number 29.

    Lets face it Bernie is trying to take F1 to where the money is, only problem is sometimes these places have other problems he doesn't feel F1 should have to be part of, also the track design has become a bit sanitised. also i'd say that some of these newer places just don't care for F1 and the interest soon dwindles away, perhaps he should take the european GP back on the road and use it to find locations where the audience are mostly local and not on a once every couple of years/decade holiday

  • Comment number 30.

    At the end of the day it will not be some over arching humanitarian view that the race is cancelled. As with everything in F1 it will come down to one thing , the sponsors. If Red Bull, Vodafone et all think there is a chance that a picture or film will be shown with them and a beaten up or dead protester in the same picture or the same screen it won't happen if they think it safe and that picture/film wont appear the race will go ahead.

  • Comment number 31.

    If Ecclestone or the FIA jump first, the Bahrainis don't have to pay their race fee, whereas if the Bahrainis themselves decide to call the race off, F1 gets to keep the cash. And when it is a reputed £25m you're talking about, that's a serious consideration, whoever you are.

    How much did Bernie say he had to pay that German investment banker in the "shakedown". £27m wasn't it?

    As far as I'm concerned he give boycotting Bahrain some serious consideration. I may even learn to respect him - given enough time.

  • Comment number 32.

    re @ 31. Sorry I obviously meant - As far as I'm concerned he should give boycotting Bahrain some serious consideration.

  • Comment number 33.

    If they were purely concerned about losing the £25m race fee, i'm fairly sure that there are other places that could find that in time for Bore-rain's 2012 slot.

  • Comment number 34.

    Seems fairly straightforward to me - this is where FOTA, plus all the teams that have quit, need to get together and agree to boycott the race. Put this in writing, and present it to Bernie.

    Yes, if the FIA call it off they lose ~£25m. But the teams won't have to travel there, the expense of running a race weekend isn't there, etc.

    Agree to call it off, cancel the race fee (after all, there isn't going to be a race - why should Bahrain pay for it?) and don't put it in next years calendar until the people of Bahrain have stopped their protests at human rights violations.

    Of course, I'm being idealistic, and I'm not blinded by the dollar signs that Ecclestone will be. But this should be an easy decision, if you take money out of the equation.

  • Comment number 35.

    Yes I'm back...but this is my big concern about the future of Formula 1.

    No matter on which channels in which countries F1 is aired, the sport will not last if Joe Average associates it with discredited regimes like the one in Bahrain. Bernie is out of his mind if he thinks otherwise.

    The problem is that most F1 peeps don't feel qualified to judge human rights issues but unfortunately this is bigger than the sport and I hope that enough people in the sport are able to realise that.

  • Comment number 36.

    As others have already rightly said, all Bernie cares about is the money. I'm surprised he didn't get much criticism for the part he played in F1 moving from free-to-air - the price of the TV deal he negotiated with the BBC in recessionary times made it all but inevitable that it would end up at Sky when that deal ran out anyway.

    Surely there is no way this grand prix will happen, unless the situation is somehow magically resolved in plenty of time? Sponsors will surely have a big say on that. It is purely a case of poker until someone blinks first, but this time it might need to be Bernie!

  • Comment number 37.

    On July 22, 1894, the Parisian magazine Le Petit Journal organised what is considered to be the world's first motoring competition from Paris to Rouen.

    Another way of looking at this is that bringing the F1 circus to Bahrain will cast a spotlight on the issues in the Kingdom, which would otherwise go unnoticed by the Western Press, as this Blog possibly illustrates?

    Just a thought - not that I condone the events in Bahrain or any attempts to use them for financial gain.

  • Comment number 38.

    Don't you people understand? This is not about being concerned whether they are "on the right track". This is a country who are punishing Shias for basic human rights, also through torture. It would be a disgrace to put it on.

  • Comment number 39.

    If I remember correctly, the 1994 SA GP was cancelled and F1 decided not to go there again due to Apartheid. Serves as a reference for how bad things have to get for a race to be chopped off the calendar pemanently.

    If F1 does host a GP at Bahrain, the teams would have the most to lose. If it considered unsafe to go, then the insurance companies would pose them a fee of billions. I think I remember that the teams wouldnt have gone last year regardless if the FIA+Bahrain gave the race the go-ahead.

  • Comment number 40.

    In my opinion F1 should boycott the race due to the overtly clear breaches of human rights in Bahrain.
    The fact the race is the pet project of the ruling family in Bahrain means F1 will be tainted by it's association.
    I believe politics should be separated from sport wherever possible and indeed many countries, such as China, have questionable human rights records.
    However the human rights atrocities committed in Bahrain have been clearly evident for some time now and F1 cannot be seen to openly endorse regimes whose actions against it's only people have not only been excessive but brutal.
    If the race is ultimately held then I will not be watching it on television as some things are more important than sport.
    The way western governments, including our own, have chosen to embrace and support the uprisings in Egypt and Libya yet ignored the suffering in Bahrain and Syria is a classic case of political expediency which I've been disgusted to witness.
    I suspect the same expediency will apply to the FIA and FOM when $25 million are at stake.

  • Comment number 41.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 42.


    Exactly, nearly 40,000,000 US citizens require food stamps to survive, that's nearly 1 in 8 of the US population ... A country that's prosecuting Bradley Manning for whistle blowing on US war crimes, and they're getting 2 GPs.

  • Comment number 43.

    doesnt matter if its cancelled or not, most of us wont see it anyway

  • Comment number 44.

    A much talked about topic which I'm sure will be ignored by the F1 big boys till the very last minute....

  • Comment number 45.

    What are these human rights, so many of you speak about? China has the very worst "human rights" record. It doesnt matter what we think is fair and just, these are soveriegn nations you are talking about, they will do as their ethics and value of humanity sees fit.

  • Comment number 46.

    As has been said above by many people, if you start to question the human rights track record of one government (in this case the government of Bahrain) you must be fair and equal in your application of this action. So judging all races on the calendar for 2012, you can find problems with a lot of them;

    Bahrain - Obvious turmoil at the moment, alleged Police barbarity.
    China - Numerous human rights abuses over the last sixty years.
    India - Although the world's largest democracy, reports of human rights abuses do exist.
    Abu Dhabi - Somebody will inevitably bring up the womens rights issue sooner or later!
    even the US Grand Prix (which is doubtful to go ahead anyway) The US executes the third highest amount of inmates in the world after Iran and China

    So you can't apply one rule for one country and one for another. Sport potentially has the power to unite where little else can, maybe a Grand Prix would go some way to focusing world attention on the Bahraini authorities and force them to sort themselves out?

    On the other hand, I think for all his business-skill and wheeling and dealing which has made F1 what it is today, Mr Ecclestone should be prepared to take a step back once in a while and judge a situation by its human factors rather than financial benefits.

  • Comment number 47.

    For many years there used be a South African GP during the apartheid-era, yet no-one within the F1 community complained or seemed concerned.

    How times change, thankfully.

  • Comment number 48.

    Andrew, why do you and your colleagues continually talk about the 'Shia minority' in Bahrain? One of the core issues is reported to be the treatment of the Shia Majority by the Sunni Minority. Where do I get my information about this religious split? Well, one place is - the country profile published on the website by the BBC. Perhaps you and the guys could wander down the corridor and check with the compilers? Or with colleagues in BBC News? Failing that, look up the CIA factbook...

    Whatever the split, the unrest and violent response by the authorities is serious and had it been in the old Soviet bloc there would have been no question of the F1 circus going. The fact that the authorities now claim to have reinstated previously-sacked staff to the organising authority ( - but fact correction: it talks about the Shia 'minority', which is incorrect) indicates that pressure through sport does have an effect.

    Either way, minority or majority, continuing violence or not, it is a lot more important than whether the show is broadcast on Sky or BBC (respect to nemmz at no.3)

  • Comment number 49.

    If there are still problems in Bahrain they should call off the race. In fact, a decision has to be made in the very near future so that they find a replacement venue, this will also put pressure on the Bahrain government.

  • Comment number 50.

    All grist to the mill as far as I'm concerned. I shall be boycotting any sponsor present if the Bahrain GP does go ahead.

  • Comment number 51.

    I am sure that the race will take place firstly because of the business and secondly because is not a F1 race to stop the breaches of human rights, it is the overall culture of the country that need to change ... A complete embargo vs. the Bahrain should be a more appropriate action, instead to boycott only the F1 race.

  • Comment number 52.

    I never thought as an F1 I would have to choose between the sport and politics, but he Bahrain regime is a disgrace, and they are not the only one. Formula 1 has become a pawn in this political struggle sadly because the ruling Al Khalifa dynasty want to use the race to portray that everything is back to normal and peace has prevailed. However the violence from the government is continuing in the streets (a child was run over by a government vehicle last month) and political prisoners are still being killed and tortured, despite last months Human Rights report and the subsequent PR whitewash from the Bahrain authorities. Any formula 1 fan who seriously wants to go back to Bahrain should watch the Bahrain 'Shouting in the Dark' documentary on Aljazeera. Until those responsible are overthrown, or brought to justice for their crimes against humanity Formula 1 should never take the royal families money or ever go back. I also can't believe some of the PR coming from the teams, which seems to only be concerned about their own safety and blissfully ignores the fact people that Bahrain citizens are dying because of the regime.

  • Comment number 53.

    I think before anyone comments on this subject they should at least visit the country, I have just come back from the island, where a very small minority is causing very minor disturbance. A country where I did not feel at all intimidated, where I felt safer than I would in any major town or city in this our so called civilized country – ref riots of just a few months ago........Golden rule: Don't believe everything you see and read in the press, BBC or not.

  • Comment number 54.

    This is not about politics, it's about human rights. Just as cricket refused to go to South Africa, F1 should show the world that a regime that beats its citizens and imprisons doctors and nurses who are treating the injured, cannot claim any legitimacy until it can clearly demonstrate that it has put that situation right. Appeasement does not work.

    People have made some very good points here but, unfortunately, I fear that those at the top of F1 will not listen as they are more interested in the money, because F1 is a commercial business, not a sport.

  • Comment number 55.

    Jbahrain: I was out there back in '08 and back then the place seemed awesome but back then I and every other F1 fan was under the impression that Bahrain was a liberal democracy. The fact is we were all had!


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