Mercedes superstar Lewis Hamilton received a letter from a prisoner in Bahrain after calling on Formula 1 to take responsibility for human rights issues in the countries it visits, with his car number 44 being adopted by inspired inmates. F1 is set to kick off its highly anticipated new season in Bahrain, a country which has been strongly criticised for abuse by human rights groups.
Hamilton, who made comments and donned a rainbow-coloured helmet last year, is outspoken on such issues and his support for some political prisoners who wrote to him from Bahrain has inspired hope. On Monday, Bahrain prisoner Ali Alhajee wrote to the seven-time champion explaining how he had made a difference. Alhajee explained that the political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Bahrain’s Jau prison had previously boycotted watching F1 because of its history with sportswashing.
Your genuine concern about these cases has changed the way prisoners think of this sport,” he wrote in a letter shared with the Guardian by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird). “To us, you are our champ, not only the best in driving but also a human being who cares about the suffering of others. To reflect our support to you, a new phenomenon spread in the prison. Inmates began to write or draw ‘Sir 44’ or ‘Lewis 44’ on their clothes, which we would wear in support while watching the race.”
In his letter to Hamilton, Alhajee claims he suffered torturous practices during his interrogation and was sentenced to 10 years in prison simply for organising peaceful protests in Bahrain’s capital, Manama. “I am a free man despite my handcuffs and the prison walls. The cement walls in this prison did not stop me from exposing the human rights abuses we suffer from within,” he told Hamilton.
“The prisoners view you not only as a world sports champion but as someone who is defending their human rights. I, along with my other cellmates, wish you the very best in your race in Bahrain. Please remember that you have supporters in the prison who will follow and cheer you on for all of your races.” F1’s stance regarding sports washing has received much criticism,
and the FIA recently signed a new deal that reportedly keeps the sport in the country through 2036. Bird questioned the governing body’s failure to investigate the race’s impact on human rights abuse and requested it use its influence within the state to rectify abuse victims. Bird has also written to drivers such as Sebastian Vettel, Max Verstappen,
George Russell and Lando Norris to request they make ‘a stand against war everywhere,’ adding that drivers had correctly taken a stance against Russia in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. Bird noted that the Saudi Arabia-led coalition of states – which includes Bahrain and the UAE – is involved in a seven-year military campaign against Yemen.
According to a 2021 UN report, the coalition has committed ‘egregious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law’ such as random attacks on civilians, disappearances and torture. A collection of human rights groups are set to write to F1 on Tuesday to express their desire for the sport’s owners to take action, while a number of MPs from the
UK and Europe will address their concerns on Wednesday about Bahrain to the FIA. In a statement, F1 said: “We take our responsibilities on rights very seriously and set high ethical standards for counterparties and those in our supply chain, which are enshrined in contracts, and we pay close attention to their adherence.” Meanwhile, a Bahraini government spokesperson refuted the claims and insisted the state is not only not involved in such practices but a pioneer of sorts.