(Berlin) –The first European Games will open in Azerbaijan on June 12, 2015, in an atmosphere of government repression unprecedented in the post-Soviet era, Human Rights Watch said today.
The authorities have detained dozens of critics of the government and failed to allow several journalists from major European outlets to enter the country to cover the games. They have also barred the human rights organization Amnesty International from releasing a report in Baku, the capital.
“Government repression is making the European Games historic for all the wrong reasons,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The European Olympic Committee still has the chance to prevent the Games from being tarnished by the Azerbaijani government’s abuses, but time is running out.”
Azerbaijan is hosting the inaugural European Games, a multi-sport event for over 6,000 athletes from 50 European nations, in Baku from June 12 to 28. The European Olympic Committees (EOC), an association of 50 National Olympic Committees, owns and regulates the games. Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, is also the president of the country’s National Olympic Committee, and has strong ties with the sports world.
In recent weeks Azerbaijani authorities denied or failed to provide required press accreditation and visas to at least three foreign journalists with European media outlets. A reporter with a leading European television station said he has yet to receive accreditation despite following all of the procedures. The authorities denied accreditation to Regis Gente, a journalist with Radio France Internationale who has been based in the South Caucasus reporting news stories on Azerbaijan since 2002. A third journalist denied accreditation works for a major European news media outlet.
Also on June 10, Azerbaijani border police at the airport in Baku refused entry to and deported Emma Hughes, an activist with the London-based group Platform who was accredited to cover the Games as editor of Red Pepper magazine. Hughes has advocated the release of government critics wrongly imprisoned by the Azerbaijani authorities, and her book criticizing the Azerbaijani government is scheduled for publication on June 12.
“Media freedom is a central pillar of the Olympic movement,” Denber said. “By denying visas to reporters covering the games, Azerbaijan and President Aliyev are rejecting one of the basic rules for hosting the event. The EOC and International Olympic Committee should demand a full explanation and reversal of these actions.”
In a June 10 news release, Amnesty International said the government told the organization at the last minute to postpone a planned trip to Baku to release a report.
Human Rights Watch wrote to officials with the EOC on June 5 and again on June 9, urging them to raise these cases with the Azerbaijani authorities, but has not received a substantive reply. It is unclear what, if any, steps the EOC has taken to resolve the accreditation issues.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged the EOC to use its unique leverage with the Azerbaijani government in the lead-up to the European Games to press for the release of wrongfully imprisoned journalists, human rights defenders, and government critics. It is unclear what, if any, action the EOC has taken, and EOC officials have said in media interviews and other public statements that the EOC “cannot accept political engagements” or “dictate to a sovereign state what to do.”
The EOC and its members are part of the Olympic Movement and governed by the Olympic Charter, which has explicit guarantees of media freedom and states that sport promotes “human dignity” and “the harmonious development of humankind.”
The Azerbaijani government has taken further action to prevent external scrutiny of the human rights situation in the country, Human Rights Watch said.
On June 5, the Foreign Ministry sent a letter to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), informing this intergovernmental organization that its Baku-based Project Coordinator program would be terminated as of June 4 because the government no longer saw any need for its activity. The OSCE has had a presence in Azerbaijan for more than a decade. The Project Coordinator led programs in combatting terrorism and human trafficking, and promoting good governance, gender equality, and nondiscrimination.
On March 31, border police barred the Human Rights Watch senior researcher on Azerbaijan from entering the country when he arrived at the airport, and deported him without explanation. It was the first time the government had barred entry to a Human Rights Watch staff member. In May the Foreign Ministry without explanation failed to respond to a visa request for another Human Rights Watch senior staff member who had been invited by the Asian Development Bank to participate in the bank’s annual meeting in Baku.
The Azerbaijani government’s unprecedented moves to bar external scrutiny have followed the worst crackdown the county has seen in the post-Soviet era, Human Rights Watch said.
After several years of a revolving-door policy of detaining and releasing government critics, in 2014 the authorities prosecuted or imprisoned at least 35 Azerbaijani journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists on unfounded charges. The crackdown has prompted others to flee the country or go into hiding. The government has also frozen the bank accounts of dozens of independent groups, forced some groups to close, and made it nearly impossible for groups that engage in human rights work to obtain foreign funding.
“The EOC has not only fallen down on its duty to uphold the Olympic Charter, it has squandered a rare opportunity to press the Azerbaijani government to change its ways,” Denber said. “Most important, the EOC has failed the journalists and activists who are behind bars and were counting on the EOC to stand up for Olympic values.”