Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton has criticized the sport’s record on human rights ahead of Sunday’s Grand Prix in Bahrain.
Hamilton has emerged as a strong voice for diversity and racial equality in the past few months, and he addressed the issue of human rights at a news conference Thursday.
“Naturally, the human rights issue in so many of the places that we go to is a consistent and a massive problem,” said Hamilton.
“We are probably one of the only ones that goes to so many different countries and I do think as a sport we need to do more.”
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.
Hamilton’s comments were prompted by letters from human rights activists passed to him by Sayed Alwadaei, director of the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD).
One letter, signed by 17 separate organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, expressed concerns about going ahead with racing in Bahrain “despite continuing abuses against protestors who oppose the event.”
Protesters see the Grand Prix as “‘sportswashing’ Bahrain’s worsening human rights situation,” the letter continued.
Hamilton said he was given the letters when he arrived and hadn’t had time to fully digest them, but he called on every sport to use its platform to push for change.
An F1 spokesperson said the organization is committed to respecting human rights.
“We have always been clear with all race promoters and Governments with which we deal worldwide that we take violence, abuse of human rights and repression very seriously,” the spokesperson said in a statement sent to CNN.
A Bahraini government spokesperson, in a statement to CNN, said the country takes freedom of expression and the protection of human rights seriously.
“This is evidenced by the government’s wide-ranging reforms in these areas over the past decade, which have been implemented in partnership with international NGOs and welcomed by numerous international governments,” the spokesperson said. “The government has put in place a range of internationally-recognised safeguards to ensure human rights abuses do not occur, including a wholly independent Ombudsman – the first of its kind in the region – to oversee all complaints of mistreatment.”
Last year, rights groups accused F1 of turning a blind eye to the plight of Bahraini activist Najah Yusuf, a critic of the Grand Prix race.
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 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.”
Hamilton has since become one of British sport’s leading voices supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, and called out the rest of the F1 grid, and the sport itself, for remaining silent in the wake of the death of George Floyd.
When Hamilton became F1’s most successful driver after securing a record-equaling seventh world title on November 15, he said he still had plenty left to achieve – namely making his sport and the world “more diverse and inclusive.”