Coming off a year when Hamilton took a leading role in the sport’s stand against racial injustice and social inequality with the Black Lives Matter campaign, he stressed that F1 cannot ignore human rights issues in the countries it visits.
“There are issues all around the world but I do not think we should be going to these countries and just ignoring what is happening in those places, arriving, having a great time and then leave,” the Mercedes driver said in a press conference ahead of the season-opening race in Bahrain.
A Bahraini government spokesperson told CNN it has a “zero-tolerance policy towards mistreatment of any kind.”
“The government of Bahrain has a zero-tolerance policy towards mistreatment of any kind and has put in place internationally recognized human rights safeguards,” it said in a statement.
“A range of institutional and legal reforms have been implemented in close collaboration with international governments and independent experts, including the establishment of a wholly independent Ombudsman — the first of its kind in the region — which will fully and independently investigate any allegation of mistreatment.
“Furthermore, the National Institute for Human Rights — created with the assistance of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights — has independent oversight of promoting and protecting human rights within the kingdom. In line with international norms, where arrests take place and convictions are sought due to clear breaches of the law, these rely on the process of an independent court system which upholds the legal rights of all individuals throughout.”
Human rights groups have repeatedly criticized the tiny island kingdom for stamping out dissent, arresting critics of the government and violently quashing protests. In 2011, a popular uprising against the country’s leadership prompted a wave of arrests.
In December, Hamilton said he received a letter from 11-year-old Ahmed Ramadhan, the son of a man facing the death penalty in Bahrain, asking for help.
Hamilton, after admitting the letter “weighed quite heavily” on him, says that he has spent the past few months educating himself on the alleged human rights issues in the country.
“Coming here all these years, I was not aware of all of the details of the human rights issues. I have spent time speaking to legal human rights experts… to human rights organizations like Amnesty,” he explained.
“I have been to see the UK ambassador here in Bahrain and spoken to Bahrain officials also. At the moment, the steps I have taken have been private, and I think that is the right way to go out about it… but I am definitely committed to helping in any way I can.”
In an open letter dated Wednesday, a coalition of 24 human rights groups — including the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) — urged new F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali to launch an independent inquiry into the Bahrain Grand Prix.
CNN has reached out to F1 for comment.
According to the Guardian, Domenicali stressed that F1 “is not a cross-border investigatory organization” in his response to the letter.
“We are a sports rightsholder that has the important job of promoting our sport across the world in line with the policies I have set out. Unlike governments and other bodies, we are not able to undertake the actions you request, and it would not be appropriate for us to pretend we can.”
“After years of engagement with F1 over their activities in Bahrain, we should not still be hearing shocking accounts of children being locked up for protesting against the race,” Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of the BIRD, said.
“It has become clear that F1’s current human rights policy has not led to real change; it’s time for the new CEO to stop sportswashing and launch an independent inquiry.”
‘Sportswashing’ is a term used to describe governments using high-profile sporting events to project a favorable image of their country around the world.
In 2019, rights groups accused F1 of turning a blind eye to the plight of Bahraini activist Najah Yusuf, a critic of the Grand Prix.
They called for the race to be canceled and urged drivers, including Hamilton, to boycott it.
Neither Hamilton nor any other drivers publicly addressed the concerns at the time and the race went ahead as normal.
Yusuf was jailed by the government in 2017 before being released following a royal pardon in August 2019.
In 2018, following criticism over her case, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “All individuals in the Kingdom are guaranteed fair and equal treatment within the criminal justice system.”
Caroline Faraj contributed to this report.