The former head of the British Olympic Association now charged with running the first European Games in Azerbaijan has described the country as “an incredibly free society” and a “wonderful place to live” despite mounting international condemnation over the oil-rich state’s escalating crackdown against human rights activists in the run up to the event next year.
Simon Clegg has revealed how British companies and technical know-how are preparing Baku for staging the inaugural Games in 2015. He told The Independent that “hundreds” of British firms had already reaped “millions of pounds” worth of government contracts from public relations to catering and medical services.
Mr Clegg, who is one of the most powerful figures in British sport, took up his post as chief operating officer of Baku 2015 three months ago. He said he had 112 British staff currently working in the Azeri capital alongside dozens more international employees from the now defunct organising committee for London 2012.
However, last month, one of Azerbaijan’s leading defenders of human rights, Leyla Yunus, called for a boycott of the Games over the deteriorating situation in the country.
She and her husband are among 24 prisoners of conscience identified by Amnesty International who have been detained pending trial or jailed for criticising the record of President Ilham Aliyev and his government.
It is claimed the president is using the deteriorating security situation with neighbouring Armenia and the crisis in Ukraine as cover to create a “criticism- free” environment for the staging of the high-profile sporting project which Mr Aliyev, a former head of the Azerbaijani Olympic Committee, has personally championed.
In May British Foreign Office ministers condemned the jailing of youth and democracy activists describing it as a “worrying trend of apparently politically motivated detentions and prison sentences being issued in Azerbaijan”.
Mr Clegg said he was aware of the country’s reputation before accepting the post but had seen no evidence of authoritarian behaviour, adding that he was “focused on the sport and not any political issues”.
He said: “I can only tell you from my own personal experience having been here for the past three months this is not evident. I walk out in the street, I walk around freely, and I can only come back on what I see and what I experience here but it is an incredibly free society. It’s a wonderful place to live and I’m very focused on what I have to deliver on behalf of the president of the country and that is delivering a highly successful inaugural European Games.”
While other continents have held their own Games for more than 60 years, Europe has never realised the ambition. Meanwhile, the success of the event is viewed in Baku as a vital springboard for raising the international profile of the former Soviet state through international sport.
The country tried and failed to secure the rights to host both the 2016 and 2020 Olympics and was awarded the right to stage the first European Games without competing against other bidders.
No country has yet been appointed by the 49 European Olympic Committees – including the British Olympic Association - to stage a follow-up tournament.
Baku2015 organisers meanwhile are set to announce a global TV deal to broadcast proceedings and hope to lure many of the world’s top athletes to compete by offering qualification towards Rio 2016 in 10 of the 19 sports, including direct entry to the winners of table tennis, triathlon and all 15 shooting disciplines.
President Aliyev has lavished hundreds of millions of pounds worth of the country’s energy wealth on his pet project. A new 65,000-seat national stadium is in the process of construction along with a state of the art aquatics centre and perimeter road around Baku.
Mr Clegg, who was Team GB's chef de mission at six Olympic and Winter Games as well as a former chief executive of Ipswich Town FC, said the UK was uniquely placed to benefit from the Games, whose sponsors include BP, which has been operating in the country since 1992.
“The other thing is we shouldn’t forget that a lot of British businesses particularly with their experience of the most recent Olympic Games in London are absolutely at the forefront of winning contracts over here for the successful delivery of the Games,” he said.
Describing the Azeri capital as the “Cannes of the Caspian” he said: “I think it will create a focus on Azerbaijan as an amazing, progressive exciting and dynamic country that is capable of staging major international events like this.
“It needs to be recognised it is a very young country – it is only 22 years old. Up until now the biggest event it has staged internationally is the Eurovision Song Contest which they won in 2011 and had to stage in 2012.”
Levan Asatiani, Amnesty International’s campaigner for the South Caucasus said the situation in Azerbaijan had deteriorated dramatically in the past two weeks with the detention of veteran human rights campaigner Intigam Aliyev charged with tax evasion.
“A lot of human rights defenders on the ground have told us that the reason the clampdown is intensifying is because the Azerbaijani government is trying to create a criticism-free zone for the Games and so they can rest assured the European Games takes place without any demonstrations from local human rights activists,” he said.
Mr Asatiani urged the international community to step up pressure on President Aliyev, whose nation is currently chair of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers – the continent’s leading intergovernmental organisation promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
“In Azerbaijan almost every government related field is controlled directly by the President. It is impossible to have a crackdown on human rights and the President not to be aware of this. He is most likely personally participating by ordering the arrests of these activists,” he said.