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AP presses F1 racing on human rights; helps free political prisoner

FILE - This photo provided by Sayed ahmed Alwadaei, Director of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), shows a drawing made in 2020 of Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton's racing car A drawing of Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton’s car, made by 11-year-old Ahmed with an appeal for help in saving his father from execution in Bahrain, is shown in an image provided the the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. In response to a question from the AP, Hamilton, the seven-time F1 champion, said in Qatar, Nov. 18, 2021, that Formula One is “duty bound” to raise awareness of human rights issues as the series closes its season in the Middle East. (Ahmed, courtesy BIRD via AP, File)

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Paris-based sports writer has kept human rights on the media agenda while covering the international Formula One auto racing series. His reporting has had impact and is now credited with helping free a political prisoner in Bahrain, site of one of the races.

Pugmire, long aware of governmental efforts at “sportswashing” in authoritarian countries hosting the series, had been one of the first journalists to press world champion Lewis Hamilton last season about jailed dissidents after discovering that Hamilton had received letters with harrowing descriptions of torture and sexual abuse by authorities in Bahrain. When an 11-year-old boy whose father is on Bahrain’s death row sent Hamilton a drawing of the driver’s Mercedes race car, Pugmire had asked the driver publicly what he would do it about the case. Hamilton pledged to raise the cases with Bahraini authorities,saying the boy’s letter “really hits home.” Such questioning by reporters is rare and risky at sports events in such tightly controlled countries,but Pugmire kept at it for months.

Then,this past September,an 18-year-old man was released from prison in Bahrain after being allegedly being tortured since 2019,an apparent reprisal against his family. His mother had spent more than two years in prison for criticizing the Bahrain F1 race on social media.The family’s supporters credit Pugmire’s reporting for helping lead to the release.

Pugmire raised the rights issue again at the inaugural Qatar Grand Prix last week,asking Hamilton about a doctor on a 138-day hunger strike. The driver,who wore a rainbow helmet in support of LGBTQ rights in Qatar, said F1 is “duty bound” to call attention to human rights.

AP’s reporting emboldened other media,including the BBC and Britain’s The Times,to follow Pugmire’s lead, questioning drivers and F1’s governing body about such issues. Pugmire won praise from a Bahraini human rights advocacy group as well as AP’s news leadership.

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Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain waves from the podium after winning the Qatar Formula One Grand Prix in Lusail, Qatar, Nov. 21, 2021. – AP Photo / Darko Bandic
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