Sister of Condemned Man in Saudi Arabia Asks F1 Star Lewis Hamilton to Help Free Brother

The sister of a man facing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia has asked Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton to intervene and help free her brother.

Zeinab Abu Al-Kheir spoke to the Associated Press in a phone interview from her home in Canada.

Abu Al-Kheir's brother, a 56-year-old husband and father of eight from Jordan, was put on death row five years ago for drug-related charges. She said he was unwittingly used as a drug mule when he was working as a driver.

She said her brother maintained his innocence, but was tortured into a false confession, then sentenced to death.

"A famous man like Hamilton can do something, he can talk with (Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman), the minister of interior or even with King Salman," she said. "People like Hamilton bring attention to the governments everywhere."

Abu Al-Kheir said she was inspired to reach out to Hamilton after the seven-time F1 champion made a statement in Qatar two weeks ago that F1 is "duty bound" to raise awareness on human rights.

Saudi Arabia is set to host its first F1 contest on Sunday. Abu Al-Kheir sent a letter to Hamilton last week, which was exclusively shared with the AP.

"Dear Lewis, I'm writing to you in the hope that can save my brother's life," she wrote. "Just saying his name while you are in Saudi Arabia may be enough."

When asked about the letter at a Thursday news conference, Hamilton said "I'm not really sure which letter you're referring to, so I can't really comment on that one."

For more reporting from The Associated Press, see below.

Lewis Hamilton, Formula One, Saudi Arabia
The sister of a man on death row in Saudi Arabia sent a letter to Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton asking him to help save his life. Above, Hamilton, of Great Britain and Mercedes GP, talks in the Drivers Press Conference during previews ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at Jeddah Corniche Circuit on December 2 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Photo by Hassan Ammar/Pool/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia, for years one of the world's most prolific executioners, dramatically reduced the number of people put to death in 2020, following changes halting executions for non-violent drug-related crimes, according to the government's tally and independent observers.

With her younger brother jailed nearly 6,000 miles (about 9,700 kilometers) away in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia, Abu Al-Kheir said she hopes Hamilton might become a connection to powerful Saudis.

In her letter to Hamilton, shared exclusively with the AP by the legal action NGO Reprieve, Abu Al-Kheir says her brother, a 56-year-old Jordanian, was put on death row five years ago on drug-related charges.

"For 12 days, my brother told the officers the truth: that he knew nothing about the pills," Abu Al-Kheir wrote in her letter. "They suspended him from the ceiling, upside down, and beat him on every part of his body. The torture was so severe that even a year later, we could see the marks. Eventually, he falsely admitted to trafficking the drugs."

Amnesty International ranked Saudi Arabia third in the world for the highest number of executions in 2019.

According to Reprieve, 392 people have been executed for non-violent crimes in the six years that King Salman and the powerful crown prince have ruled.

There was a significant drop in 2020 compared to an all-time high of 184 executions the year before. The drop resulted in part from a moratorium on death penalties for drug-related offenses.

But Abu Al-Kheir told the AP she's worried her brother could still face execution.

"They said they have stopped the death (from) beheading since almost one year. But there is nobody who knows what they are doing (inside the prison)," she said.

Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been accused of "sports-washing" their human rights records by using high-profile sporting events to present a favorable image.

Qatar hosts the World Cup next year. Two years ago, boxer Anthony Joshua left Saudi Arabia around $70 million richer after winning in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia came under scrutiny in October after buying English Premier League club Newcastle.

Human Rights Watch launched a campaign late last year to counter what it says has been an effort by the Saudi government to spend billions of dollars hosting major events as " a deliberate strategy to deflect from the country's image as a pervasive human rights violator."

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International's regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said glamorous events must not deflect from human rights.

"The Saudi Arabian authorities have invested heavily in PR stunts to re-brand their image," Morayef said Thursday in a news release. "The Saudi Arabia authorities need to realize that the best PR comes from respecting human rights."

The AP sent an email to government authorities seeking clarification on the death penalty and human rights.

Abu Al-Kheir, meanwhile, also wrote to King Salman.

"I tried all the ways to help my brother, to save his life," she told The AP. "I always give him hope, to see his kids and wife."

Lewis Hamilton, Qatar, Formula One
Lewis Hamilton has been a loud voice for human rights in the past, wearing a rainbow helmet in Qatar for the LGBTQ+ community. Above, Hamilton reacts after qualifying session in Lusail, Qatar, on Saturday, November 20 ahead of the Qatar Formula One Grand Prix. Hamad I Mohammed/Pool Photo via AP