Formula One drivers urged to speak up for human rights in Bahrain

Lewis Hamilton and other F1 drivers are called upon by rights groups to speak up against human rights abuses in Bahrain during their season’s opening race in the Gulf country.

Bahraini Shia demonstrators hold posters of jailed activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja.
Bahraini demonstrators hold posters of jailed activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja during a protest calling for his release in the village of Jidhafs, west of Manama, Bahrain on April 6, 2012 [AFP]

Lewis Hamilton and his fellow Formula One drivers have been urged by human rights groups to speak up against human rights abuses and show solidarity with a rights activist based in Bahrain ahead of the motor racing season’s opening race in the Gulf country.

In a letter addressed to Hamilton and other F1 drivers ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix, the European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) sought their help in raising awareness about prominent human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who was sentenced to life in prison after participating in 2011 anti-government protests in Bahrain.

“This is of the utmost importance now that the FIA [Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile] wants to take power over how drivers can express themselves through the amendments made to FIA’s International Sporting Code for 2023, threatening to sanction all drivers who do not maintain a neutral stance on personal, political or religious matters,” ECDHR said in a statement on Wednesday.

The letter refers to a recent altercation between the motorsport racing federation and its drivers, after it updated its rules to prevent “political, religious or personal” remarks from being made without prior approval.

The FIA received immediate backlash from drivers, notably Hamilton, who vowed to continue speaking about issues he’s passionate about.

“I think we’ve come a long way. I think we’ve seen great progress, but there’s more to do and we are still going to places where there are still issues and I know there is work being done in those places, too, and these things can take time,” he told Sky News in an interview.

“I’m going to continue to be me and continue to fight for things that I am passionate about. I wouldn’t let anybody stop me from doing that.”

Sporting code

The FIA updated the sporting code last December, requiring drivers to get prior written permission to make or display “political, religious and personal statements or comments”.

Following the backlash, the FIA said drivers will be allowed to make political statements only in “exceptional” circumstances and in “their own space”, and outside of a race, via their social media channels or during an interview.

They will still face sanctions if they oppose the law while on track.

Lewis Hamilton
British driver Lewis Hamilton has previously used his profile to address rights abuses and racial injustice around the world [File: Jennifer Lorenzini/AFP]

In its letter to Hamilton, ECDHR urges the seven-time F1 champion to help raise awareness about al-Khawaja’s case and “spread messages of solidarity with those who are suffering at the hands of the Bahraini authorities”.

“We hope your openness to be informed about the human rights situation in the countries you race in will inspire others to follow your example, because, as you have rightfully pointed out, ‘one person’ can only make a certain amount of difference, and there is a ‘need for collective support’ to make a difference,” the letter said.

The letter comes a day after human rights campaigners in the United Kingdom also urged the drivers to steer the sport away from a “moral vacuum” by speaking out at the opening race in Bahrain, and the following race in Saudi Arabia.

“There are two roads that F1 can now take. One is a road which is a moral vacuum where the leaders and the administrators seem to be going,” Paul Scriven, a member of Britain’s House of Lords, said at a news conference organised by the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD).

“There is another road that some drivers seem to be taking … who understand they can use their platform and their sport not just for sport’s sake but for good and for change and that they cannot ignore the human rights abuses in the country that they are driving in.”

Hamilton has previously used his profile to address rights abuses and racial injustice around the world.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies