Human Rights Organizations Address F1 Sportswashing in Joint Letters to Drivers

On 24 March 2022, ADHRB and nine other human rights organizations issued joint letters to four Formula 1 (F1) drivers – George Russell, George Russell, Max Verstappen, and Sebastian Vettel – ahead of the F1 race in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The groups expressed their concern for F1’s complicity in the Saudi government’s use of the event as means to ‘sportswash’ its egregious human rights violations, which includes the recent execution of 81 people on March 12th, the largest mass execution in the country’s history.

Saudi Arabia has carried out several mass executions in recent years. The March 12th mass execution is the most recent demonstration of the kingdom’s deeply flawed justice system and example of the monarchy’s violent hold on power. According to the joint letter, of the 81 people executed, more than 50 percent were killed for their participation in pro-democracy protests and over 70 percent were executed for nonlethal offenses. These statistics rare part of a dark reality, the Saudi state suppresses dissent by killing its critics, through sham trials marred built on due process violations and securing convictions from false confessions extracted under coercion and torture. Despite widespread international condemnation following the announcement of the mass execution, executions have continued a nearly daily basis; 16 more people were executed in the two weeks between the mass execution and the release of the joint letters. Alarmingly, there have already been more in executions in 2022 than in the two previous years combined.

The mass execution, while certainly a major escalation of the Saudi government’s use of the death penalty, is unfortunately in keeping with the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in kingdom. While Saudi authorities declare to the world that immense progress has been made since the ascendance of King Salman to the throne in 2015, the Saudi criminal justice system continues to be characterized by a lack of transparency and independence, whereby the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) has been empowered to hand down excessively long prison terms for individuals peacefully expressing human rights rhetoric or dissenting views. Additionally, despite several Royal Orders issued in 2020 and 2021 which aimed to modify death penalty sentences related to drug-related crimes and offenses involving minors, these changes still fail to meet Saudi Arabia’s obligations under international law and have been adhered to infrequently and at the discretion of judicial officials. According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2022, Saudi authorities continue to engage in the systematic repression of human rights defenders and political activists through the widespread use of arbitrary arrests, grossly unfair trials, and a disturbing reliance on capital punishment for offenses related to charges that amount to nothing more than peaceful activism and the exercise of fundamental freedoms.

The joint letters were sent after the principled stance taken by F1 regarding the Russian government’s abuse of power did not include similar action regarding the abuses of power by the Saudi government. Comments made by seven-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton expressed the discomfort he feels with racing in Saudi Arabia given its longstanding human rights abuses. Mr. Lewis stressed that “[U] ltimately it is the responsibility of those in power to make the changes and we’re not really seeing enough. We need to see more”. ADHRB and the undersigned human rights organizations acknowledged that while drivers are not involved in deciding where races are held, their voices can “… save lives, and empower the individuals and families that are suffering at the hands of the Saudi Arabian authorities”. Accordingly, the joint letters call upon the four F1 drivers to position themselves as allies of Lewis Hamilton in raising awareness of human rights abuses and expressing solidarity with victims of Saudi Arabia’s widespread human rights violations.