Baku European Games 2015: A fearsome PR machine is using sport to sweep human rights under the carpet

My fellow campaigners have been imprisoned, my mother intimidated – and yet the games go on

Gulnara Akhundova
Friday 12 June 2015 10:55 BST
The lawyer and human rights activist Rasul Jarafov is arrested by Azerbaijani police before being imprisoned.
The lawyer and human rights activist Rasul Jarafov is arrested by Azerbaijani police before being imprisoned.

The first ever European Games will be held in Baku, Azerbaijan from Friday. In the months preceding the games, Azerbaijan’s autocratic president has rounded up and jailed his most vocal critics. Yet, the European Olympic Committees, who are responsible for the games, have little to say about those jailed on trumped up charges. Why does sport think it’s above human rights?

I am Azerbaijani, but now I find myself in exile. The country’s ruling establishment has become increasingly dictatorial, and dissent is no longer tolerated. Azerbaijan is now one of the worst places on earth to be an independent journalist. The internet is increasingly censored, protest is impossible and now critics of the regime have found themselves jailed.

My friend Emin Huseynov, right now, is holed up in the Swiss Embassy in Baku. Prison would pose a major risk to his health, after a damaging injury sustained when the police in Azerbaijan beat him up in a protest in 2003. They also beat him up in 2008. After that he lost his hearing in one ear. Even after I left the country, the police interrogated my mother - a Soviet-era tactic to chill people.

All this may not be sport’s fault – but Azerbaijan’s President is certainly using it to his advantage. Using prestigious sponsorship of European football titans such as Atletico Madrid, the hosting of the European Grand Prix in 2016 and now this Olympic spin-off the European Games. These vanity games have cost ordinary Azeris $6.5bn - with the regime is so desperate to get athletes to Baku it is even paying for all the travel and accommodation for the visiting teams.

European Olympic Committees President Patrick Hickey has been effusive in his praise for the regime, commenting in April 2015: “Baku 2015 will come to life through the dedication and effort of your entire country. It has been an absolute pleasure working with the Azerbaijani leadership.”

The opening ceremony today will, according to the organisers, showcase the “beauty, spirit and culture of Azerbaijan”. Yet the government’s corruption, cronyism and violence, will be hidden far from sight by a fearsome PR machine. No opposing views of the European Games will be allowed. As we discovered yesterday, along with other media outlets and human rights organisations, Guardian journalists have been banned from reporting on the games. On top of this, the lawyer and activist Rasul Jarafov, who was supposed to be running the Sport for Rights campaign during the European Games, is now in jail. He faces up to six and a half years in prison for “abuse of power” and spent his 30th birthday in prison.

Jarafov's appeal against this sentence was to be heard on the day of the opening ceremony of the European Games. Now, fearing international attention, the authorities have postponed the hearing until after the election, when the international press has packed up and gone home.

From the deaths of workers in Qatar in preparation for the 2020 Fifa World Cup, to the human rights violations in my own country, the leadership of world sport has turned a blind eye to the behaviour of host countries for too long. Hosting major tournaments is a privilege and should only be bestowed on those who will respect sporting ideals.

Tyrannical, corrupt regimes bid to host major sports events in the hope of using them as propaganda. We mustn’t let them get away with it. For the sake of Azerbaijan’s brave political prisoners, we must make it clear to the regime that they cannot "sportswash" their reputation. Sport cannot be above human rights.

Gulnara Akhundova is a human rights defender from Azerbaijan who works on the Sport for Rights campaign.

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