(Berlin) - The Azerbaijani government should immediately release all wrongly detained activists and journalists, with only 100 days remaining before the first European Games begin. A new photo essay highlights the plight of 12 people serving or facing long prison terms in Azerbaijan, apparently in retaliation for criticizing government policies.

Azerbaijan will host the first European Games, a multi-sport event, in the capital, Baku, from June 12 to 28, 2015. The games are anticipated to take place in a European country every four years.

“As the first country to hold this new major European sporting event, Azerbaijan is looking to project a progressive, modern image internationally,” said Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If the European Games are to show that sport can leave a positive legacy, then every journalist and activist detained on politically motivated charges in Azerbaijan should be released well before the opening ceremony.”

European leaders should convey to Baku that they will not send high-level delegations to the opening ceremony unless those wrongly imprisoned are released and the crackdown on dissent ends.

A top official from the Azerbaijan National Olympic Committee was quoted in media reports in late February as saying that the Azerbaijan government will cover the transportation and other costs for 50 teams to participate in the games. The British Olympic Team’s chief of mission acknowledged that the Azerbaijani organizers had effectively paid for its team to compete, the Guardian newspaper reported.

In the last year, the Azerbaijani authorities used a range of bogus criminal charges, including narcotics and weapons possession, tax evasion, hooliganism, incitement, and even treason, to arrest or imprison at least 35 human rights defenders, political and civil activists, journalists, and bloggers. The crackdown has prompted dozens of others to flee the country or go into hiding. Many of the activists face similar charges, suggesting the punitive and political nature of the allegations.

In recent months Azerbaijani authorities also froze the bank accounts of numerous independent civic groups and their leaders, forcing these organizations to suspend their work or close. The government has also refused to register foreign grants and increased government control of foreign funding, making it virtually impossible for groups that criticize the government to function. The government has for many years harassed independent newspapers and television stations and forced many independent media outlets to shut down.

The European Games are not an official Olympic event, but are owned, co-organized and regulated by the European Olympic Committees (EOC), an association of 50 European National Olympic Committees. Among EOC’s goals is to spread throughout Europe the Olympic ideals as defined by the International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Charter.

Among those currently in detention facing strikingly similar trumped-up charges and long prison sentences is the human rights activist Rasul Jafarov, who was organizing a “Sport for Rights” campaign to highlight human rights concerns in Azerbaijan ahead of the European Games when he was arrested in August 2014. He faces criminal tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, and abuse of authority charges.

Leyla Yunus, director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, and her husband, Arif Yunus, were arrested in July and August 2014, respectively, and charged with treason, tax evasion, and illegal entrepreneurship. Both have chronic health conditions that have deteriorated severely since their detention, their lawyers have said.

One of Azerbaijan’s best-known and most highly respected human rights lawyers, Intigam Aliyev, is also in detention and on trial for spurious tax-related charges, apparently in retaliation for his human rights work. Authorities have sealed shut the office of Aliyev’s organization, the Legal Education Society, effectively closing one of the few groups in the country that provided pro bono legal aid.

In December, the authorities arrested Khadija Ismayilova, Azerbaijan’s leading investigative journalist and an ardent government critic, on spurious charges of driving someone to attempt suicide, and then in January added charges of tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, and abuse of power. In December, police and prosecutors raided the office of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Baku, questioned employees, seized equipment and files, and sealed off the premises.

Even before the current crackdown, the government had taken numerous steps to limit independent media. All foreign radio stations, including BBC and the Voice of America, have been banned from FM frequencies since 2009.

The government’s intolerance for free media has direct implications for journalists covering the European Games, including their ability to move and speak freely with a range of people and to cover a variety of topics in Azerbaijan, Human Rights Watch said.

In 2012 Azerbaijan hosted the Eurovision Song Contest. Many journalists covering Eurovision also reported extensively on the human rights situation in the country, including through interviews with many of those now detained, imprisoned or in hiding.

“The government’s attack on journalists, news outlets, human rights organizations and others blatantly defies the letter and spirit of the Olympic Charter’s principles on press freedoms and human dignity,” Buchanan said. “The European Olympic Committees and National Olympic Committees should make clear to Baku that it is making a mockery of Olympic ideals and that it needs to free the imprisoned activists and journalists and end the severe restrictions on the media and free expression.”