Show caption Lewis Hamilton’s number 44 has been adopted by prisioners in a Bahrain jail Photograph: Dppi/LiveMedia/Shutterstock Lewis Hamilton ‘You are our champ’: Prisoner in Bahrain jail sends letter to Lewis Hamilton Inmates write 44 on clothes as show of support for Briton
Human rights groups want F1 to make difference in Bahrain Giles Richards @giles_richards Mon 14 Mar 2022 20.17 GMT Share on Facebook
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Lewis Hamilton has proved to be an inspiration for prisoners in Bahrain after demanding last year that Formula One takes responsibility for human rights issues in the countries it visits, with his car number, 44, being adopted by some inmates.
F1 begins its new season this weekend in Bahrain, a country strongly criticised for abuse by human rights organisations. On Monday, Ali Alhajee, a prisoner in Bahrain, wrote to Hamilton explaining how the seven-times champion 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 role in sportswashing the regime. Hamilton’s outspoken stance on human rights and his support last year for some political prisoners who wrote to him from Bahrain has changed their attitude.
“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.”
Alhajee claims he has been subjected to torture during his interrogation and that he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for organising peaceful protests in Manama, the capital of Bahrain. “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.”
Various groups are once more demanding F1 and the FIA act to make a difference in Bahrain, which has recently signed what is believed to be the longest contract in F1 history in regards to hosting meetings – to 2036. Bird has written to F1 questioning its failure to set up an inquiry investigating the race’s impact on human rights abuse and requested it use its platform and influence with Bahrain to secure redress for victims of abuses. The organisation cites the state’s “heavy repression” last year and how it has “sustained its violent campaign of persecution against political dissidents, and escalated its targeting of children.”
Bird has also written to drivers, including Sebastian Vettel, Max Verstappen, George Russell and Lando Norris, requesting they make “a stand against war everywhere,” noting drivers had rightly taken a stance against racing in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. The organisation has called for them to acknowledge rights violations everywhere and notably that the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, which includes Bahrain and the UAE, is engaged in a seven-year military campaign against Yemen.
According to a 2021 UN report, the coalition has “commit egregious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, including indiscriminate attacks against civilians, forced disappearances and torture.”
A coalition of human rights groups will write to F1 on Tuesday expressing their desire for the sport’s owners to take action, while a cross-party group of MPs from the UK and Europe will address their concerns on Wednesday about Bahrain to the FIA, demanding the sport’s governing body takes responsibility for the race’s impact in Bahrain.
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.”
A Bahraini government spokesperson said: “Bahrain has led human rights reform in the region and to suggest otherwise does not reflect current-day reality. To attempt to single out Bahrain in the Formula One calendar is absurd, lacks context, and entirely undermines the enormous strides and leadership Bahrain has shown in this area.
“Bahrain welcomes and actively supports the role Formula One can play in shedding light on human rights issues in all countries it operates in, now and in the future.”