Bahraini political prisoners appeal to Lewis Hamilton for his help

Sport

Lewis Hamilton has been asked to intercede on behalf of three Bahraini citizens who claim to have been victims of human rights abuses.

In letters to the Formula One world champion shown to the Guardian, the three current and former political prisoners praise his commitment to pursuing equality, anti-racism and human rights causes and ask that he uses his position as F1’s most recognised and successful driver to bring their plight to a wider audience.

“To hear the world champion echo our calls is deeply moving,” writes one imprisoned human rights protester. Another says Hamilton’s stance “could make all the difference”. They go on to invite the British driver to meet victims of the regime.

F1 is to hold two consecutive races in Bahrain, with the first on Sunday. After Hamilton won his seventh title at the previous grand prix in Turkey he made a clear statement that F1 needed to address its publicly stated commitment to upholding human rights. “We realise we’ve got to face and not ignore the human rights issues in the countries that we go to, not just 20 years, 30 years from now, but now,” he said.

On Tuesday 30 cross-party MPs and a collection of human rights organisations led by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy wrote to F1’s chief executive, Chase Carey, highlighting a host of concerns with the oppression and maltreatment of citizens in Bahrain. The Bahraini authorities have since issued a statement rejecting claims of human rights abuses and sportswashing.

A document compiled by Liberal Democrat peer Lord Scriven, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, the director of the BIRD, and Husain Abdulla, the executive director of Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, has collated personal letters from three Bahrainis to Hamilton. The authors are described as current and former political prisoners.

“As someone who has faced reprisal for my human rights activism, I understand the importance of support from people such as Lewis Hamilton who use their platforms for the good, to speak out against oppression,” Alwadaei said. “To recognise their suffering is to take the first step towards justice.”

Lord Scriven said: “I have personally worked on these cases for many years and it still breaks my heart to read their moving testimonies. As the face of modern motorsport, Hamilton has a real opportunity to change his sport for the better and I hope that he will speak out on behalf of these brave men and women.”

Hamilton has yet to respond to the letters. Earlier this season in Italy he said: “We go to all these countries. Whilst it’s a great event, we don’t leave a long-lasting positive effect on those places. The question is can we? Can we be a part of bringing attention to certain issues and pushing for change.”

The document requests that Hamilton makes a statement by wearing a T-shirt showing his support for political prisoners and raises their grievances with the prime minister, Crown Prince Salman. This season Hamilton has worn T-shirts promoting equal rights, anti-racism, the Black Lives Matter movement and protesting against the killing of Breonna Taylor.

The first letter is from Ali Al Hajee, who has spent seven years in prison after organising pro-democracy protests and says he has suffered permanent injuries after he was arrested. An F1 fan, Hajee alleges dreadful conditions in his prison, medical negligence and arbitrary punishments. “The Bahrain I am describing probably does not reflect your experience in the country,” he writes.

“Desperate to clean up its international image, the Bahraini government goes to extreme lengths to keep patrons of the Grand Prix insulated from the realities of their repressive regime. For many Bahrainis, the glamour of the Grand Prix has long worn off, leaving behind an annual reminder of our struggle. This is why I am risking reprisal by writing to you today from prison.”

His views are echoed by Najah Yusuf, a former civil servant who was imprisoned in 2017 after posts on Facebook criticising the regime and F1. Bahrain denies her arrest and incarceration had anything to with peaceful protest against F1. She was released in 2019 but her son has since been sentenced to 20 years in jail for protesting, which she describes as a reprisal because of her actions.

She makes a heartfelt plea to Hamilton, who has said his pursuit of anti-racism, equal rights and diversity has become the most important challenge he has undertaken. “Reading your talk about human rights and the need for change has given me hope,” Yusuf writes. “For Bahrainis like me who have been tortured, imprisoned and ripped from their families for calling for the very same thing, to hear the world champion echo our calls is deeply moving.”

Yusuf continues with an invitation for Hamilton to meet her and other victims of the regime. “Together, perhaps we can encourage the change needed to make the grand prix an event every Bahraini can be proud of,” she says.

The final plea comes from Mohammed Ramadhan, a former member of Bahrain’s security forces who is on death row for a crime he says he did not commit. He says he was targeted because of his pro-democracy activities. Bahrain’s government has said the case met all requirements of a fair trial.

“Our government doesn’t care whether we live or die, but your voice could help change my country for the better,” he writes to Hamilton. “After your race this weekend, I urge you to tell your friend the Crown Prince that our lives matter. It could make all the difference.”

The Bahraini government has stated: “No person is arrested or prosecuted for the peaceful expression of their opinion, and all persons arrested (regardless of the charge) benefit from full due process safeguards, including the right to representation and the right to fair trial before Bahrain’s independent judiciary. Further, the claims of torture and/or retribution are categorically denied.”