(Brussels) – The leadership of the European Olympic Committees (EOC) should insist that the government of Azerbaijan release journalists and activists ahead of the European Games, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Azerbaijan will host the games, a multi-sport event for over 6,000 athletes, in Baku from June 12-28, 2015.
“Quick to praise President Ilham Aliyev’s preparation for the inaugural European Games, the EOC leadership has so far maintained a public silence in the face of serious abuse and repression by Azerbaijan’s government against its critics,” said Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The window to finally speak up before the games open is closing fast, but the EOC still has an opportunity to stand up for Olympic values, including by unambiguously calling for prisoner releases.”
The European Olympic Committees, an association of 50 National Olympic Committees, owns and regulates the games. The 17 National Olympic Committee leaders, who make up the EOC’s Executive Committee, or governing board, will meet on May 14 in Antalya, Turkey, in their final gathering before the European Games.
Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists sent a letter to all 17 Executive Committee members on May 12, urging the EOC to call on Azerbaijan to release those imprisoned on politically motivated charges, including journalists and human rights defenders, and to end its crackdown on critical voices before the opening ceremony of the games.
The EOC and its members are part of the Olympic Movement and governed by the Olympic Charter, which has explicit guarantees for press freedom and insists that sport promotes “human dignity” and “the harmonious development of humankind.”
In the year leading up to the games, the government of Azerbaijan has carried out an unprecedented crackdown to silence critical journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition activists, including by arresting dozens on bogus criminal charges carrying long prison sentences. Among those in detention and facing up to 12 years in prison if convicted on multiple false charges is the country’s leading investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova.
“Azerbaijani authorities have demonstrated time and again that they will not tolerate criticism but use intimidation, harassment, politically motivated prosecution, imprisonment, and physical attacks to silence independent voices,” said Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The EOC’s leadership must not keep silent while the journalists most capable of ensuring the full, free coverage of the European Games, as stipulated by the Olympic Charter, languish behind bars.”
The organizations also called on the EOC to establish a standing mechanism to enable journalists covering the games to report interference in their work and secure a swift response from the EOC.
The EOC vice president, Janez Kocijancic, sought to dismiss any meaningful role for the EOC in addressing human rights concerns in Azerbaijan during a hearing in the European Parliament on May 6. According to media reports, Kocijancic contended that the EOC “cannot accept political engagements,” but also claimed that the EOC will use “whatever influence we have to make this society better and more open.”
“The EOC needs to use its unique leverage with Azerbaijan in the run-up to Baku 2015 to stand up for press freedom and human dignity,” Ognianova said. “These values are universal ones that Azerbaijan has voluntarily committed to uphold.”
In addition to the dozens of journalists and activists behind bars, many other critics have fled the country or gone into hiding, fearing persecution. The government has shuttered dozens of nongovernmental organizations and media outlets and virtually eliminated all possibilities for independent groups critical of the government to secure foreign financing.
“EOC leaders absolutely have a responsibility to use their influence for positive change and ensure that the inaugural European Games are the great success everyone wants,” Buchanan said. “But if the EOC continues to be a silent partner in the face of such serious human rights abuses, the games risk being forever tarnished by both the abuses and the complacency of those who have the power to make a difference.”