CNN  — 

Seven-time Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton has said he’s “spoken to Bahrain officials” about alleged human rights abuses in the country ahead of the Grand Prix in the country.

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.”

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Hamilton attends the F1 Bahrain Grand Prix press conference.

“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.

In a statement sent to CNN, an F1 spokesperson reiterated the sport’s “unique role in bringing different cultures together.”

“Formula 1 and the FIA fully believe that sport has always had a unique role in bringing different cultures together and crossing borders, being a force for good. We believe that shutting countries off from sport is not the right approach and engagement is far better than isolation. Sports like Formula 1 provide millions of people around the world with joy and excitement and we want to ensure that everyone has the opportunity access and enjoy the world of sport regardless of their background.

“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. Our human rights policy is very clear and states that the Formula 1 companies are committed to respecting internationally recognised human rights in its operations globally and have made our position on human rights clear to all our partners and host countries who commit to respect human rights in the way their events are hosted and delivered.”

“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.

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Hamilton drives during the third day of the F1 pre-season testing at the Bahrain International Circuit.

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.