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Azerbaijan: Release Activists, Journalists Behind Bars

EU, US, and Olympic Committees Should Act Ahead of European Games

(Berlin) – Azerbaijan’s international partners should insist on the release of wrongfully detained and imprisoned critics as the country prepares to host the first European Games, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch released a new video on April 20, 2015, featuring prominent activists and journalists detained in the months leading up to the games.

Azerbaijan will host the inaugural European Games, a multi-sport event for over 6,000 athletes, from June 12-28 in the capital, Baku.

“With less than two months to go to the European Games, the spotlight is increasingly on Azerbaijan’s terrible human rights record and its political prosecutions of critics,” said Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This is a key moment for Azerbaijan’s partners, including the European Union, to call on Azerbaijan to release the critics it has thrown behind bars and end its crackdown.”

European leaders should make clear they will not be sending high-level delegations to the games’ opening ceremonies unless people imprisoned for criticizing the government are freed and the government’s crackdown on independent groups and activists ends, Human Rights Watch said.

The video features Rasul Jafarov, who was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison on April 16 on politically motivated criminal charges of tax evasion, abuse of power, illegal business activities, and embezzlement. On the eve of his arrest in August 2014, Jafarov had initiated a Sport for Rights campaign to raise awareness about politically motivated imprisonment and other human rights abuses in Azerbaijan ahead of the European Games.

On March 31, Azerbaijani authorities refused entry to a Human Rights Watch senior researcher, Giorgi Gogia, who had planned to monitor the trials of Jafarov and Intigam Aliyev, a prominent human rights lawyer who is facing similar politically motivated criminal charges.

The European Olympic Committees (EOC), an association of 50 European National Olympic Committees, awarded the European Games to Azerbaijan in 2012 and oversees the games’ preparations. Among the EOC’s goals is to spread throughout Europe the Olympic ideals as defined by the International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Charter.

“The European Olympic Committees cannot legitimately claim to be advancing the Olympic Charter, which explicitly talks about sport’s ability to promote human dignity, while dozens of wrongfully prosecuted government critics languish behind bars,” Buchanan said. “The EOC needs to stand up for the principles it espouses and make clear that the Azerbaijani government can’t host a credible international sports event while rejecting fundamental values.”

The video also features Khadija Ismayilova, a leading investigative journalist who had exposed government corruption and government officials’ questionable business activities, as well as Leyla Yunus, a prominent, long-time human rights activist and government critic, and her husband, Arif Yunus.

In addition to those in detention, dozens of activists and journalists have been compelled to flee Azerbaijan or go into hiding. Among them is Emin Huseynov, a journalist and director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), a leading independent media organization. In August 2014, the authorities refused to let Huseynov travel to Turkey for medical treatment. A few days later, authorities raided the group’s office, interrogated staff, confiscated computers, and sealed the office shut. Fearing arrest, Huseynov sought refuge in the Swiss Embassy in Baku, where he remains. He also faces trumped-up criminal charges related to financial crimes.

“The journalists and others behind bars or in exile are fully aware that thousands of athletes, sports fans, journalists, and others will soon arrive in Baku to celebrate a major new international event,” Buchanan said. “They are counting on Olympic leaders and governments to not just come to the Baku party, but to stand up for what is right, by insisting on freedom for those wrongly accused.”

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