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Formula One boss rebuffs Lewis Hamilton over human rights criticism

Activists voice anger after Chase Carey says the sport represents a 'force for good' ahead of this weekend's controversial Bahrain Grand Prix
Hamilton has been prominent in supporting Black Lives Matter protests in the United States (AFP)

Formula One boss Chase Carey drew criticism from rights campaigners on Tuesday after he said that the sport represented a "force for good" in the countries it visited.

Mercedes' seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton last week urged the sport to do more about the issue of human rights, saying they were a "massive problem" in some of the countries where Grand Prix races were held.

Hamilton had been speaking in Bahrain ahead of the kingdom's annual race, which has regularly drawn criticism from rights campaigners at home and abroad.

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Last week, UK MPs and rights groups accused Bahrain of sportswashing, torture and oppression around the race, which had been cancelled in 2011 due to civil unrest later brutally repressed by Bahraini forces.

Thirty cross-party UK MPs wrote to Carey, highlighting a host of concerns with the oppression and maltreatment of citizens in Bahrain.

Rights groups led by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird) also wrote to Carey, claiming that the Bahrain Grand Prix “has become a focal point of popular protest and serious human rights abuses have been committed by Bahraini security forces against protesters”.

The Bahraini government has rejected the claims.

"I don't think we have a massive problem. I think actually sports have a unique opportunity to be a force for good," Carey told CNN Sport ahead of Bahrain's follow-up race on Sunday, the penultimate Grand Prix of the season.

"Sports in some ways have uniquely - over time - crossed borders, crossed cultures and brought people from different places together," added the chief executive.

"I think the world's got a lot of places you can sort of boycott and protest. 

"I think the world could use a few more places where you try and create good through encouragement and positive reinforcement."

'Totally contemptible'

Sayed Alwadaei, the director of Bird, said in a statement that it was "totally contemptible to hear F1’s CEO doing PR for the Bahraini regime.

"Instead of having a spat with Hamilton, Carey should take his advice and tackle human rights issues and stop rewarding repressive regimes with more races to further sportswash their bloodstained rights records," he said.

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Formula One is set to race in neighbouring Saudi Arabia for the first time next year, a move criticised by Amnesty International.

Saudi organisers have said hosting a race will result in "positive change".

"Saudi Arabia was criticised for being closed off to the world, and now we've opened up, we're criticised for sportswashing," Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal told the BBC last month when the race was announced.

Other hosts such as Azerbaijan and China have also been in the spotlight for their rights records, while Hamilton has been known for supporting Black Lives Matter protests in the United States.

"I think we've been very clear about our commitment to human rights, we're very clear about our cooperation and collaboration with our partners, to improve and advance the human rights issues," said Carey.

"We are very proud of our partnership here in Bahrain. We're proud to partner with Bahrainis."

This year, Bahrain is hosting two rounds of a Covid-19 affected calendar.

Hamilton, who won Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix, has has been forced to withdraw from this weekend's follow-up race after testing positive for the coronavirus, Reuters reported.