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Saudi F1 race: Activists urge Lewis Hamilton to speak out on human rights

Dozens of rights organisations write letter urging world champion to boycott Saudi Grand Prix or use his platform to promote human rights in the kingdom
Lewish Hamilton
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton has been politically outspoken in the past (AFP/File photo)
By in
Washington

Dozens of human rights organisations have called on Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton to boycott a Grand Prix set to be held in Saudi Arabia later this year and speak out against the kingdom's human rights abuses.

In a letter sent on Monday, a copy of which was shared with MEE, 45 groups urged the British driver to "reconsider" his participation in the race in Saudi Arabia, citing the kingdom's ongoing war in Yemen, detention of women's rights activists and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

"For the first time in Formula One's history, Saudi Arabia will be hosting a race in 2021. We think that this race is a key place to make a statement regarding human rights," the letter said.

Signatories to the letter included Code Pink, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, Freedom Forward and International Service for Human Rights.

Hamilton, who holds the joint record for World Drivers' Championship titles, has been politically outspoken in the past. 

Last year, he wore a helmet featuring a raised fist and a tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The world champion is the only black driver in the sport's history.

'Brave advocacy'

Later in 2020, after receiving letters from victims of oppression in Bahrain, including from the son of a man on death row, Hamilton denounced human rights abuses in the kingdom ahead of a Grand Prix there.

He said as a sport that tours the world, Formula One needed to "do more" to advance human rights globally.

"The human rights issue in so many of the places we go to is a consistent and massive problem," he said. "It is very, very important. This year has shown how important it is for not only us as a sport but for all the sports around the world to utilise the platform they have and push for change."

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On Monday, the rights groups said that Hamilton should extend his activism to Saudi Arabia.

"We hope you choose to continue your brave advocacy in Formula One and speak out on the human rights issues taking place in the countries where you race," the letter said.

"Your voice could be critical in this movement to free women’s human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia and end the suffering of millions of people in Yemen."

Rights advocates have long raised concern over Formula One's decision to organise races in countries with troubling human rights records. 

The Bahrain Grand Prix had been facing increased scrutiny since 2011 when it was cancelled amid a violent crackdown by security forces and a Saudi-led military coalition against pro-democracy protesters.

The 2021 Saudi Grand Prix, which will take place in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, was announced late in 2020, but the exact date of the race has not been scheduled.

"With 70 percent of the population under the age of 30, Saudi people want to be like the rest [of] the world - they want to go to the biggest live events, they want to have fun and they are embracing and welcoming new opportunities," said a Formula One statement announcing the Grand Prix last November.

"Formula One has worked hard [to] be a positive force everywhere it races, including economic, social and cultural benefits."

Sportswashing

Bringing global events and entertainment to the kingdom has been part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's stated plan to transform Saudi society and move it away from ultra-conservative norms.

But critics say that allowing Saudi Arabia to host international sporting tournaments helps its rulers normalise their behaviour by shifting attention away from Riyadh's well-documented rights violations, including its crackdown on dissent and its leading role in the war in Yemen - the world's worst humanitarian crisis. The concept is known as sportswashing.

In their letter on Monday, the advocacy organisation urged Hamilton to use his platform to bring awareness to abuses in the kingdom if he decided to participate in the race later this year.

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"Mr Hamilton, we believe there are many ways for you to make a statement at this race. Using your platform could be as simple as tweeting Loujain al-Hathloul's story and calling on the Saudi government to #FreeLoujain unconditionally by lifting her travel ban, letting her family travel and dropping her charges," the letter said.

Hathloul was released earlier this month after 1,001 days in prison over charges relating to her feminist advocacy, including activism against the kingdom's driving ban on women, which was lifted shortly before she was arrested in 2018. 

Although she is no longer in prison, the activist, who faced torture and sexual harassment in detention according to her family, is still under a travel ban. 

Saudi officials deny that Hathloul was tortured and say that the case was a criminal issue handled by what they describe as the kingdom's independent judiciary.

In their letter, the rights groups offered to provide more resources and information to Hamilton about abuses by the kingdom.

"Given that Loujain was punished for driving, you could put a sticker of Loujain on your car during the race. Another suggestion is for you to wear a shirt on the day of the race calling on the Saudi government to #FreeLoujain and stop their war on Yemen," they said.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.