human rights and formula one

Racing Amid Unrest: Formula One Arrives in Azerbaijan Facing Criticism From Human Rights Campaigners

This weekend Formula One arrives in Baku for the inaugural European Grand Prix. You can bet that the circuit will look great, but it's what you won't see of Azerbaijan's capital city that matters.

by Ben Halls
Jun 17 2016, 3:02pm

Photo: Valdrin Xhemaj/EPA

Next week, the Formula One circus moves to a brand new location: Baku, Azerbaijan. The oil-rich former Soviet state has taken F1's regular money spinner – the European Grand Prix – from Valencia, and is set to follow the long tradition of nations announcing their arrival on the global stage by hosting a grand prix.

On the surface it's the latest success for Azerbaijan. After all, the country has witnessed a dramatic economic upturn in recent years, with the GDP rising from $5.7 billion in 2001 to $75.2 billion in 2014 on the back of rising oil prices. It has also hosted other major events, such as the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, and, in 2015, the inaugural European Games.

However, human rights campaigners paint a very different picture of the real, grim reality of Azerbaijan. Speaking during an event organised by British human rights group Article 19 at the Free Word Centre in London, they tell of a country steeped in corruption, nepotism, fraud, false imprisonment, and economic collapse brought on by plummeting value of oil and gas.

In the case of journalist Rasim Aliyev, there are even accusations of state-sanctioned murder.

The real Azerbaijan, they say, is not the one that will be shown to F1's global audience of over 400m viewers. But their aim is not to stop F1 racing in Baku altogether.

"We are not looking for a boycott," explains Rebecca Vincent, human rights activist and coordinator of the Sport for Rights campaign. She has, however, met with "F1 bosses" to discuss them putting out a statement denouncing Azerbaijan's human rights record. The request at the meeting – so secretive she wouldn't say what exactly was said, where it was held, or with whom – was declined, although communication channels were left "open". The only withdrawals Vincent has asked for are those of the three Western artists performing for the elite fan base at the race: Pharell Williams, Chris Brown, and Enrique Iglesias. She sees their appearances as little more than propaganda, though none of the artists' agents have responded to the former US diplomat.

A worker applies the finishing touches to Baku's new F1 street circuit // Valdrin Xhemaj/EPA

Nor should the race, in the words of Phil Bloomer, the director of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, be allowed to "whitewash" the country and promote a "sanitised" version of it. Instead, what they need is for the European Grand Prix to not just be a coronation for Azerbaijan, but also a critique of its problems.

And problems, there are plenty.

President Ilham Aliyev – who took over from his father in 2003 – abolished the two-term limit that was previously in the nation's constitution, via a contested referendum in 2009 at the start of his second term. The leader of what was once the opposition, Ilgar Mammadov, who founded the Republican Alternative (REAL) party, was sentenced to seven years in prison on unrelated charges after questioning the validity of the decision.

READ MORE: Human Rights Abuses and the European Games in Azerbaijan

The detention of journalists, bloggers, and every day people critical of the Azerbaijan's reigning elite are not uncommon. Ilkin Rustemzade, a youth activist who used social media to criticise his government, was arrested for hooliganism after filming a 'Harlem Shake' dance video in 2013. He was later sentenced to eight years' imprisonment after charges were escalated to inciting violence and mass disorder.

It was crackdowns on journalists that forced the panel's third member, Emin Huseynov, out of his homeland. A journalist who once ran the award-winning, independent Objective TV outlet in Azerbaijan and who chairs the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, Huseynov was forced to spend 10 months inside the Swiss Embassy in order to secure his exit from the country after his offices were raided. He currently lives in exile.

Huseynov has a disturbingly long list of friends and colleagues who have all been subject to similar treatment – arrest, suppression, and beatings – and who were unable to escape the country.

The unseen side of Baku // Photo: Jahangir Yusif / Sports for Rights Coalition

None of this, of course, will be visible when the F1 visits Azerbaijan. As is often the tradition when major sporting events visit emerging areas, everything from the airport to the track will be cleaned up and the outside world will only be shown what the host nation wants to be seen.

What will be visible, though – and symbolic of the deeper nature of Azerbaijan – is what has happened to Baku itself.

The modern high rise hotels – which, Huseynov says, are owned by President Aliyev's daughters and provide a typical example of Azerbaijan keeping its money amongst the elite – are built on what was once traditional housing. Occupants were offered half market value for their homes, and were left with little option but to sell.

READ MORE: How Formula One Quit Smoking and Ruined its Health

Around the city, facades have been erected, literally, in order to conceal areas that have been deemed unsightly. What was most upsetting to Huseynov, however, was how parts of the 500-year-old road that ran through the centre of Baku were paved over with modern asphalt to create the street circuit. Huseynov sees these sections – which run between turns 7 and 8, along with 15 and 16 – as part of Azerbaijan's cultural heritage, and he is upset that they would be so easily destroyed. He likened it to replacing stretches of London's oldest streets, and is especially angry that UNESCO did nothing to protect it as President Aliyev's wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador.

The government says that, at the end of Baku's F1 contract (expected to be five years, despite signing for 10), the road will be restored. Huseynov is understandably doubtful.

The list of issues in Azerbaijan could go on and on. If you'd like to read more about them, this is a good starting point.

Formula One has always shone a light on the nations it races in, highlighting the good and bad. The problem comes when you ask if it should do so at all, judging Azerbaijan's bad as outweighing the good and refusing to go there. The sport has always said that it will race anywhere so long as the facilities are up to scratch and it is safe. They've never been in the business of judging individual countries or their ideologies.

Photo: Valdrin Xhemaj/EPA

And so, for better or worse, the F1 circus goes on to Azerbaijan. But by going, they bring more than just cars. They bring something that Azerbaijan has been desperately deprived of: dozens of members of the free press.

The media have already raised questions about immigration and huge cost differentials in visa fees, and (although more directed at Formula One Management) why they need a visa for a 'European' race. People such as Rebecca Vincent, Emin Huseynov, and Phil Bloomer are working tirelessly to ensure that when the press finally do arrive, they can understand the country as a whole, not just the heavily gentrified and staged area around the centre of Baku.

But it also comes down to the person sitting at home watching the race on TV to look at the country critically, too. When you see the modern buildings, the re-paved streets, and the immaculately dressed people in corporate boxes, do so with one question in your head – how did all those things get there?


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