Human Rights Abuses and the European Games in Azerbaijan

The inaugural European Games are underway in Azerbaijan, a country recognised for its human rights abuses and widespread corruption.

by Caroline Christie
Jun 15 2015, 11:25am

Photo by PA Images

This story originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Last Friday, the European Games opened with a $100m ceremony at a newly built 70,000-seater stadium in Baku, Azerbaijan. It culminated with Lady Gaga singing John Lennon's Imagine at a grand piano while Britain's Olympic boxing champion Nicola Adams raised the Olympic Committee flag, marking the official start of the tournament.

This is the European Games' inaugural year, with Baku the only bidder competing to act as host. 38 out of the 48 European Olympic Committees voted to showcase the competition in a country described by Human Rights Watch as having a "dire political situation". What's more, in 2014 it was rated as more corrupt than Mali and Belarus by Transparency International.

The official costs of the tournament are reported to be $1.2bn, though the real figures are estimated to be much higher. As the third largest oil-producing country in Eurasia, behind only Russia and Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan has been attempting to portray itself as a more modern and progressive state, though their methods have been in keeping with the regime's track record of oppression and tyranny.

Photo: Jahangir Yusif / Sports for Rights Coalition

Last week, Amnesty International were banned from entering the country until after the Games, while the Guardian's chief sports correspondent, Owen Gibson, was informed the day before the opening ceremony that he would not be able to enter Azerbaijan in order to report on them.

It comes as no surprise that the regime has been treating the Games as an exercise in political peacocking and a much-needed chance to shift attention away from their human rights record. From the 2016 European Formula 1 Grand Prix, matches at football's 2020 European Championship, and now the European Games, Azerbaijan is practicing sportswashing – using major sporting events as a way of diverting attention from human rights violations. In a country that is becoming increasingly obsessive over how they're perceived by the rest of the world, the regime is repeatedly resorting to violent methods in order to improve its public image.

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Last year, the country's crackdown on civil society and dissent reached a crisis level that saw 13 prominent journalists and activists imprisoned on trumped up charges ranging from embezzlement and treason to abuse of power and incitement of suicide.

On the night of the opening ceremony, one of the country's most prominent freedom defenders, Emin Huseynov, director of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom, was flown out of the country by Switzerland's foreign minister, Didier Burkhalter, after being trapped in the Swiss embassy in Baku for over 10 months.

Emin went into hiding last August amid fears he would be thrown in prison during a wave of arrests that saw his fellow human rights defenders detained and handed lengthy sentences.

Photo: Aziz Karimov / Sports for Rights Coalition

Rebecca Vincent, coordinator of the Sport for Rights campaign, said: "The Azerbaijani authorities have been engaged in a ruthless human rights crackdown, which has significantly worsened over the past year in the run-up to the European Games."

Emin had a right to be scared. The last time he was arrested, during an event celebrating Che Guevarra's birthday, he ended up in intensive care with head and brain trauma after being brutally beaten by police officers.

Before his departure from the embassy, Gulnara Akhundova of International Media Support, a friend and colleague of Emin, said: "Emin Huseynov, who has now spent 10 months at the Embassy and who requires urgent medical care, will have certainly been missed by foreign journalists. In the old days, foreign media would use his organisation's office as a hub. Emin would be the one defending the rights of the journalists covering the Games. Now, it is time for those journalists to show solidarity with Emin and other brave human rights defenders in Azerbaijan."

Emin is not alone in the fight for freedom. Khadija Ismayilova is one of the country's most prominent journalists and active voices in the struggle to speak out against the government. She is currently facing several charges – ranging from abuse of power to inciting a man to attempt suicide – in the country's targeted crackdown on opposition.

Khadija was awarded the 2015 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award for her tireless efforts to expose endemic corruption in the country. On the eve of the Games it was decided her pre-trial detention would be extended; it will not end until the Gams are over.

When asked about her daughter's treatment in prison, Khadija's mother Elmira was understandably cautious: "The treatment in prison is not bad. Khadija doesn't complain. She says everything is fine. She looks fine when we visit her so I think this is true: she is being treated well".

Photo: Jahangir Yusif / Sports for Rights Coalition

However, in an open letter to the New York Times last week, Khadija (pictured above right) painted a different picture of life behind bars: "I have been punished for speaking out from jail, placed into solitary confinement, and prevented from seeing my family and lawyers."

She went on to describe the situation in her country as dire. "The truth is that Azerbaijan is in the midst of a human rights crisis. Things have never been worse."

Alongside the rounding up of activists, officials have attempted to clean up the capital in the form of large projects designed to showcase the positive impact of the Games on Azerbaijanis' quality of life. But they have done little more than add to an increasingly diminishing veneer of progress and prosperity.

Earlier this year, 16 people died after a flammable plastic cladding caused a fire at a residential flat in a slapdash attempt to disguise the city's dilapidated buildings. The incident may have led to the resignation of Rasim Adjalov, the head supervisor of the inaugural Games, but it hasn't stopped reports of similar tactics. Other methods used to hide the city's defective living standards include reports that residents must abide by an unwritten regulation that prohibits them from taking photographs of the old town.

Photo: Jahangir Yusif / Sports for Rights Coalition

The committee behind the Games is chaired by the first lady of Azerbaijan, Mehriban Aliyeva, whose household was described by U.S. diplomats as "a family to be reckoned with". Leaked cables also revealed how observers in Baku likened the administration to the "feudalism found in Europe during the Middle-Ages: a handful of well-connected families control certain geographic areas, as well as certain sectors of the economy."

But it's not only the first family who are responsible for Azerbaijan's international rebranding. Britain has also played an integral role in boosting the country's global reputation.

Baku 2015's Chief Operating Officer, Simon Clegg, is currently an elected Executive Board member of the British Olympic Association and played a key role in London's successful bid to host the 2012 Olympics. He has been publicly congratulating the host nation on their sporting success during the first day of the Games.

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Britain has also been exporting cultural signifiers in an attempt to aid the success of the Games. When Azerbaijan hosed the Eurovision Song contest in 2012, the regime purchased a fleet of 1,000 London taxis to help raise standards in the country's road transport system. This time, a further 500 vehicles have been bought in order to ferry VIP guests between venues. Executive Vice-President of The London Taxi Company, Peter Johansen, praised the "forward-thinking State" for securing a continued partnership and thanked President Aliyev in particular for playing an integral part in the deal.

Team GB themselves have sent their largest overseas contingent since the 2008 Beijing Olympics to the former Soviet state, where they will compete with 6,000 athletes from across Europe. As they vie for gold in 20 different sports, participating countries will also have a chance to compete in several new, non-Olympic games such as 3-on-3 basketball, beach football and Sambo – a type of martial art that originated in the Soviet Union. Russia tend to do particularly well in this.

Photo: Aziz Karimov / Sports for Rights Coalition

Partners of the Games include major international brands such as BP, Coca-Cola, and the children's rights organisation Unicef, although it is unclear exactly what their role is.

Rebecca Vincent of Sport for Rights concluded: "The best PR would be to put a stop to the ongoing human rights crackdown, release the political prisoners, and open the country to all wishing to cover the Games, in the spirit of the Olympics."

The supposed ideal of the Olympics – and by extension the European Games – is to unite people through sport. With this in mind, a regime that relentlessly proves itself to be an autocratic oppressor of civil liberties is not the sort of partner the International Olympic Committee should be aligning themselves with, let alone actively supporting.