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  • Baku 2015: The Censored Games

    | Photo: Tissot

Published 14 June 2015
Do large international sports events exacerbate repression? In Azerbaijan, unequivocally, they do.

The European Games, currently being held in Baku, Azerbaijan, have simultaneously failed to attract leading track and swimming athletes, and failed to advance the goals of press freedom and human dignity upheld in the Olympic charter. The glitz and glamour of the opening ceremony intended to distract international attention away from ongoing human rights violations in the oil and gas rich state.

As a visual homage to Orwell’s doublethink, Lady Gaga performed John Lennon's song “Imagine” behind a large piano exhaustively draped in flowers, while political prisoners languish in prisons. But, Azerbaijan’s censorship of criticism has been so unapologetic and obvious that even the BBC and International Business Times have been forced to report on it.

Sporting directors claim that large athletic events encourage abusive states to improve their human rights records. However, from Bahrain to Azerbaijan and beyond, the opposite is found. Large events often exacerbate existing problems and shed light on the links between sport and corporate interests, which some states bend over backwards to protect.

Azerbaijan has faced recurrent criticism in recent years for harassing, arresting, imprisoning, attacking, and torturing more than 100 journalists, human rights defenders, opposition members, and pro-democracy youth activists. Over the past week, numerous journalists and human rights organizations have been barred from entering Baku, or have failed to obtain accreditation to cover the games, including British newspaper, the Guardian. Human rights organizations Platform, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, have also all been banned from reporting from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

Amnesty International intended to launch their report “Azerbaijan: the Repression Games. The voices you won’t hear at the first European Games” from Baku. Late on June 9, 2015, the Azerbaijan embassy in London wrote Amnesty International stating that “Azerbaijan is not in a position to welcome the Amnesty mission to Baku”; instead suggesting that any visit should be postponed until after the games. “The actions of the authorities have only highlighted their desperate attempts to create a criticism-free zone around the games,” said Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia.

Endemic human rights abuses have caused many activists and campaigners to flee the country, and a climate of fear silences those who remain. Rasul Jafarov, founder of the NGO, Human Rights Club, was arrested in August last year and held in pre-trial detention for eight months. He had led the “Sing for Rights” campaign in 2012, when Azerbaijan hosted the Eurovision contest. He had been planning a “Sport for Rights” campaign prior to the European Games. In April, he was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison on trumped-up charges of tax evasion and illegal business dealings.

Jafarov’s case is unfortunately emblematic. Leyla Yunus, a 60-year-old award-winning human rights activist, was arrested last July after she called for a boycott of the European Games. She has been in pre-trial detention ever since. Her husband Arif Yunus was arrested five days later. Intigam Aliyev, a prominent human rights lawyer, was given a seven-and-a-half year sentence. 

Human Rights Watch have reported on “bogus” trials, and trumped up charges relating to fraud, tax evasion, and (particularly in the case of youth activists), consumption and sale of illegal drugs brought against anyone that expresses criticism of the authoritarian Aliyev goverment. The European Games seek to white-wash all this. The regime has generously paid the expenses of all the competitors, effectively ensuring the athletes’ silence too.

This new athletic event is the brainchild of Patrick Hickey the head of the European Olympic Committees. Fifty nations and 6,000 athletes are taking part in the games. Yet, the swimming contest in Baku will be a junior event and the athletics competition a third-tier national league event. The event has been unsuccessful at competing with the European championships. The hopes of PR experts who thought that the European Games would provide better commercial opportunities for national teams (such as Team GB) to build their brand, seem to have disappeared, together with hopes that the event may encourage the petro-state to improve its human rights record.

Emma Thompson, of Platform sought to bring attention to the relationship between the corporate oil giant BP, Azerbaijan and the European Games. She was banned from entering Baku in the days before the European Games. She had intended to report for British magazine, Red Pepper. 

Thompson says that the “gold-dusting” of Azerbaijan at these games effectively helps blind the public to BP’s own significant interest in the country and region. BP and Azerbaijan plan to lead the construction of a multi-state gas pipeline project, which will run about 3,500 kilometers between the Caspian Sea and Italy, and by 2050 will have put just over two billion tones of CO2 into the atmosphere. Thompson says, “Azerbaijan is being drained by the BP-Aliyev alliance; drained of fossil fuels, drained of wealth, and drained of democracy.”

Although the extent of Azerbaijan’s censorship has brought some coverage to the country’s authoritarian regime, it is far from sufficient. Similar gold-dusting took place in 2012 at the Eurovision song context. Now, this year, following the opening ceremony of the European Games it’s state and corporate repression: 2 Vs Human Rights: 0. But the competition between repression and justice is far from over. Third round: Baku European Grand Prix, 2016.

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