Azerbaijan must immediately and unconditionally release all government critics unfairly imprisoned if the European Games are to leave a positive legacy, Amnesty International said today ahead of the closing ceremony on Sunday.
A human rights crackdown in the run up to the Games saw journalists, lawyers, youth activists and opposition politicians harassed, intimidated and jailed on trumped-up charges by the repressive government of President Ilham Aliyev.
“The crude attempt to create a ‘criticism free zone’ around the Games by jailing and intimidating critics and banning international journalists and human rights organisations, has backfired severely,” said Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Deputy Programme Director for Europe and Central Asia.
“International media coverage of the crackdown has held a mirror up to Azerbaijan and showed the world that the country has something very shameful it wants to hide.”
At least 20 prisoners of conscience are currently in jail merely for criticizing or challenging the government. On 10 June, two days before the opening ceremony, Amnesty International was barred from entering the country to launch a new report. The following day it emerged that journalists from the Guardian, Radio France International and German broadcaster ARD had also been banned.
Olympic events claim to embrace the values of respect, diversity and mutual understanding. They are also supposed to create a “unique set of environmental, social and economic legacies that can change a community, a region, and a nation forever”.
Despite widespread media coverage of Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record, the International Olympic Committee – the body responsible for upholding these values – has failed to speak out. The European Olympic Committees and the vast majority of national committees with teams taking part have also failed to condemn the crackdown. Only the German and Swedish Olympic Committees have raised concerns publicly about human rights violations carried out by the Azerbaijani authorities.
However, this week two important intergovernmental bodies have condemned the human rights situation in Azerbaijan. On Tuesday, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution, calling explicitly for the release of wrongfully detained activists and civil society leaders in Azerbaijan.
Then on Wednesday, the UN’s Human Rights Council released a statement supported by 22 European states and the USA, expressing concern about the “shrinking of space for civil society and freedom of expression in Azerbaijan” and calling for an end to the crackdown.
“What started as a domestic crackdown on dissent ahead of the Games became an orchestrated attempt to evade all international scrutiny as international media and NGOs were banned. If the Azerbaijani authorities have learned anything from the negative media coverage of their human rights record, it should be that banning NGOs and media is not good PR. They must stop locking up, harassing and intimidating people who challenge or criticize the government,” said Denis Krivosheev.
“The only way to reverse what looks set to be a seriously tainted legacy of these Games is for the authorities to stop the crackdown on independent NGOs, allow freedom of expression and immediately and unconditionally release government critics imprisoned on false charges. International, European and National Olympic committees must also end their deafening silence on the human rights crackdown around the Games and add their voices to those who have spoken out for change.”