Baku European Games 2015: British trade envoy offered to boost Azerbaijan's medal prospects

The holding of the games in Azerbaijan has provoked widespread criticism

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The Independent Online

The Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Azerbaijan offered British coaches and facilities to train Azeri athletes, to improve their medal-winning chances before the controversial European Games. The special offer was made last year, as Britain sought to curry favour with the authoritarian regime in Baku to secure better oil and trade deals.

The holding of the inaugural Games in Azerbaijan this month has provoked widespread criticism, due to the country’s poor human rights record. Dozens of critics of the Baku regime are being held in jail without trial, including human-rights activists, lawyers and journalists. Last week, protests were held outside the British embassy and the European Union’s offices.

Charles Hendry, a former Tory energy minister, offered to improve Azeri medal-winning chances and lobbied for Britain to send a “VVIP” (very, very important person) or a member of the Royal Family to represent the UK, according to documents seen by The Independent on Sunday.

“If we haven’t had a VVIP visit before then, this could be an opportunity, but I imagine there will be a lot of competition for senior level contact time? Alternatively, would we expect a Royal to go out?” he wrote in an email last year to the UK ambassador in Baku.

Charles Hendry offered to improve Azeri medal-winning chances and lobbied for Britain to send a “VVIP” (AFP/Getty)

Mr Hendry, who was appointed as the UK’s special trade envoy to Azerbaijan in 2012, was told that London’s Lord Mayor would attend the official opening because the UK general election uncertainty would make it impossible to pick someone “not be affected by the elections”.

The former Tory MP, who stepped down at the last election, lobbied the Azeri sports minister, Azad Rakimov, and urged the British embassy to push the issue. In the email correspondence, Mr Hendry suggests Loughborough College might be able assist the Azeri team members “to enable them to secure some more medals in next year’s Games”.

A Loughborough College spokeswoman said they were aware of the offer, but did not provide any assistance or facilities.

In one of his last emails, Mr Hendry wrote: “I have so enjoyed my visits to Azerbaijan. It has given me a fantastic opportunity to get to know a truly special country and meet some outstanding people and I will only have the happiest memories of those visits, and what it has made possible for us to achieve between us. The generosity of the President in meeting me on every single visit is something I shall especially treasure. I think we can genuinely claim our relations with the government are the best they have ever been.”

President Ilham Aliyev; the holding of the inaugural Games in Azerbaijan this month has provoked widespread criticism (Getty)

He said he had already been invited to give a series of university lectures in Baku.

Amnesty International criticised the UK approach last night. Allan Hogarth, Amnesty’s UK head of advocacy, said: “The UK Government must approach the issue of human-rights abuses in Azerbaijan in all of its dealings with the authorities. An already repressive regime, [its] crackdown on human rights there intensified in the past year in the run-up to the European Games to the point where there are hardly any critical voices left ... Journalists, opposition politicians, NGO workers and anyone else who criticises or challenges the government are likely to be harassed, arrested or jailed on trumped-up charges.

“The UK should use its influence for good and not allow human rights to slip off the agenda.”

Emma Hughes, of the Platform campaign group in London, claimed that the UK’s key concern is the interests of the oil company BP.

Critics say that Azerbaijan is using sport to improve its image. Next year, it will host its first F1 Grand Prix and it will be a venue in the 2020 Uefa European Football Championships. Its long-term goal is to host the Olympics.

Azerbaijan officials claim criticism of its human rights record is part of a campaign to discredit the country. The IoS was unable to reach Mr Hendry for comment.