With the European Games starting in just over two weeks, Baku has been busy. But preparations have extended far beyond making sure everything is ready for the athletes and the tourists. In the run-up to the Games, the Azerbaijani authorities have been carrying out a truly unprecedented human rights crackdown, working aggressively to silence all forms of criticism and dissent.
As a result, there are now dozens of political prisoners in the country, including eight journalists and five human rights defenders, as well as another human rights defender, Emin Huseynov, who is trapped at the Swiss Embassy in Baku, facing arrest if he attempts to leave. Several of these can be considered prisoners of the Games, such as Rasul Jafarov, who launched the Sport for Rights campaign, or Leyla Yunus, who called for a boycott of the Games just days before her arrest.
Now, with no possibility left for human rights work in the country, a group of international organizations has come together to carry on the legacy of their jailed Azerbaijani colleagues. As part of the Sport for Rights campaign, they are working to draw attention to the human rights situation in Azerbaijan in the context of the Games, to use this brief moment of international attention to show that there is a more sinister truth behind the glamorous image the authorities try so hard to promote abroad.
Above all, Sport for Rights is working for the immediate and unconditional release of Azerbaijan’s jailed journalists – Nijat Aliyev, Araz Guliyev, Parviz Hashimli, Seymur Hezi, Khadija Ismayilova, Hilal Mammadov, Rauf Mirkadirov, and Tofig Yagublu – and human rights defenders – Intigam Aliyev, Rasul Jafarov, Anar Mammadli, Arif Yunus, and Leyla Yunus, as well as Emin Huseynov.
Sport for Rights is also calling for the Azerbaijani authorities to stop their ongoing repression of independent civil society, by ceasing their harassment and intimidation of civil society activists, and dropping the criminal proceedings against them. The campaign is also asking the Azerbaijani government to repeal regressive legislation that severely restricts the ability of NGOs to operate.
The campaign is urging European leaders to make their attendance at the Games contingent on the release of the jailed journalists and human rights defenders. European governments should not send high-level delegations unless these individuals are immediately and unconditionally released. This is not a call for a public boycott of the Games, or for athletes not to attend. Sport for Rights is simply asking political leaders to use this key opportunity to take a stand, and to hold the Azerbaijani government accountable for its human rights obligations.
Sport for Rights is also engaging with the National Olympic Committees in countries across Europe, encouraging them to publicly voice concern regarding the human rights crackdown, and to call for the release of Azerbaijan’s jailed journalists and human rights defenders. So far, representatives from the German and Swedish Olympic Committees have made strong statements.
Finally, Sport for Rights is calling for a thorough and impartial investigation into the recent fire in Baku that killed 15 people and injured many more. The coalition is deeply saddened by the tragic loss suffered by these 56 families, and urges the Azerbaijani authorities to ensure that they are adequately compensated and those responsible are brought to justice.
The Azerbaijani authorities have already responded to these efforts, attempting to smear the campaign – as with any efforts to expose their gross human rights violations – as being “anti-Azerbaijani.” This is simply not true. The organizations taking part in the campaign are working in defense of Azerbaijanis who have been jailed precisely for their love of their country, for working to promote democratic reform and to hold their government accountable. That cannot be considered “anti-Azerbaijani.”
For better or worse, the European Games will be an important moment for Azerbaijan – and for Europe. What remains to be seen is whether European leaders will take this opportunity to show that human rights are important in Europe’s relations with Azerbaijan, or whether they will once again prioritize other interests over democratic values. If the latter, it is the people of both Azerbaijan and Europe who will lose out.
Rebecca Vincent is the Coordinator of the Sport for Rights campaign.
The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL