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|Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton walks as he arrives at the paddock on March 25, 2021, prior to the the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at the Sakhir circuit in Manama.(GIUSEPPE CACACE / AFP)|
The 36-year-old seven-time world champion led anti-racism protests on the grid last season, regularly taking a knee before the start of each race.
However, as the new Formula One season kicks off, calls have been made by a coalition of 22 human rights groups for the sport to carry out an independent inquiry into allegations of abuses associated with the Bahrain Grand Prix.
A letter sent to F1 chiefs cites, for example, claims that an 11-year-old boy was arrested for joining protests against last season's race in the Gulf kingdom.
The Guardian newspaper said Hamilton as well as F1's new chief executive, Stefano Domenicali had both received copies of the letter.
Hamilton on Thursday referred to receiving letters from human rights campaigners and alleged victims of torture in Bahrain – asking him to speak out on their behalf.
He has raised questions about the inclusion of a Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on this year's record 23-race calendar.
"It's the first time I received letters like that, so I've taken the last few months to try and educate myself -- because coming here all these years I wasn't aware of all of the details of human rights issues," said Hamilton at a pre-season news conference.
He added he had spoken to human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, and taken steps in private to raise the issues.
"I don't want to say too much that may jeopardise any progress," he added.
"But I am definitely committed to helping in any way I can."
He said human rights should not be treated as a political issue.
"I don't think that we should be going to these countries and just ignoring what is happening -- and arriving, having a great time, and then leave."
- 'Zero tolerance' -
However, the Bahrain government later Thursday hit back, claiming they have a "zero-tolerance policy towards mistreatment of any kind".
"A range of institutional and legal reforms have been implemented in close collaboration with international governments and independent experts," said a government spokesperson.
"(These include) the establishment of a wholly independent Ombudsman – the first of its kind in the region – which will fully and independently investigate any allegation of mistreatment."
They added: "Furthermore, the National Institute for Human Rights – created with the assistance of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – has independent oversight of promoting and protecting human rights within the kingdom."
Meanwhile, Hamilton said he plans to continue taking a knee this year, hoping it will provoke an uncomfortable conversation about equality and send a signal that he is listening to and representing the black community.
"I can't ignore the fact that last year weighed heavily on me," he said.
"As I get older, I am understanding more. I think we all went through an educational phase last year and we're all learning more."
"I plan to continue to take the knee because I think what's really important is when young children are watching what we're doing here in this sport and when they see us take the knee, they will sit and ask their parents or their teachers 'why are they doing that? What are they taking the knee for?'."
"It sparks an uncomfortable conversation. It's a fight that will continue for a long time."