World champion Lewis Hamilton vowed not to ignore pleas to improve human rights in Bahrain and other countries where Formula One hosts races, after reading letters from alleged torture survivors and being sent a drawing from the young son of a Bahraini man on death row.
Hamilton received personally addressed letters from three alleged torture victims in Bahrain ahead of a race there two weeks ago, and has since read them.
“I think there’s definitely work to be done in the background and I definitely won’t let it go unnoticed,” the seven-time F1 champion said on Saturday.
Included with the letters to Hamilton was a photo of 11-year-old Ahmed, who is proudly holding up his drawing of Hamilton’s Mercedes F1 car. The drawing, which was sent by email to The Associated Press, came with the boy’s personal written plea: “Lewis, Please save my father.”
“When I was drawing the car I thought that it could save my father,” the boy said. “We struggle every day without him, I really hope he comes back to us.”
He is the son of Mohammed Ramadhan, who in his letter to Hamilton said he was arrested after supporting Bahrain’s pro-democracy uprising and then allegedly framed in a murder case and beaten with iron bars in order to extract his confession. He is facing execution.
“I think the saddest thing for me was that there’s a young man on death row and it’s not clear … and when his son writes me a letter it really hits home. All lives matter,” Hamilton said from the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. “When I get some time now, I will definitely try and speak to (people) and see how I can positively impact that (F1) weekend as a sport moving forwards.”
Hamilton said he wanted to address the human rights issue with Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa last week in Bahrain – the second of two races to be held there – but had to sit out that race after contracting the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
“I’d hoped after the first race to have had time to sit and address it with the Crown Prince, but I was bedridden for most of the week and I wasn’t able to see anybody,” Hamilton said. “Now, look, ultimately it isn’t necessarily my responsibility to speak up on the places that I don’t know everything about. But I think that, we together, always have to work to push for change, for improvements.”
Mohammed Ramadhan’s wife and mother-of-three Zainab Ebrahim said she has been deeply traumatized.
“This year has been the most heart-wrenching with the realization that Mohammed’s death sentence would not be overturned. Living with that reality every day and having to tell my children that their father was never coming home has broken me,” Ebrahim said. “My husband is an innocent man, He has done nothing wrong. It is time for this nightmare to end and he is set free to return to those who love him.”
Ebrahim and her son’s comments were sent to the AP by Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, the Director of the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.
“When world champions like Lewis Hamilton speak out, lives can change forever,” Alwadaei told The AP. “F1 has a responsibility to support Lewis in speaking out.”
When Hamilton initially received the letters, he was also copied in on an NGO letter sent to F1 chairman Chase Carey listing alleged abuses in the Persian Gulf island since 2011.
“The human rights issue in so many of the places we go to is a massive problem,” Hamilton said in response at the time, pledging to read the letters he’d been given. “I do think as a sport we need to do more … not just saying that we’re going to do something.”
More than a dozen rights groups co-signed a letter endorsed by Amnesty International to Carey, urging F1 to leverage compensation for victims and ensure people can protest without reprisals.
Bahrain is accused of exploiting F1 to gloss over, or “Sportswash” its human rights record, by using a high-profile sporting event to project a favorable image of their country. Another letter sent to Carey, co-signed by 30 British cross-party parliamentarians, asked F1 to implement its human rights policy at the Bahrain GP amid concerns about rights violations linked to the race.
“I don’t think we have a massive problem,” Carey said in an interview with CNN earlier this month. “I think the world could use a few more places where you try and create good through encouragement and positive reinforcement, as opposed to boycotting or protesting.”
Carey’s comments were strongly disputed by mother-of-four Najah Yusuf, one of three who wrote to Hamilton along with Ali AlHajee, a man who is in Jau Prison after organizing pro-democracy protests.
The three survivors’ letters, initially reported by The Guardian newspaper and obtained by The AP, contain harrowing descriptions of extreme beatings, torture and sexual abuse.
The AP has asked Bahrain’s National Communication Centre and the Bahrain Embassy in Britain to comment on the accusations.
“The government of Bahrain takes the protection of its citizens’ human rights and freedom of expression extremely seriously, and this is explicitly protected by Bahrain’s constitution,” the center said in a statement on Nov. 27.