Barred from Baku

As the European Games kick off in Baku, Amnesty International’s Naomi Westland argues that by denying Amnesty International entry into the country, Azerbaijan has proved right all our criticism.

George Orwell could hardly have written it better himself.

The email from the Azerbaijani embassy contained only three short paragraphs, but it said it all. By denying Amnesty International entry to Baku, the country’s government has proved right all our criticism of Azerbaijan’s crackdown on freedom of expression in the run up to the European Games.

The dates of our visit (from today until Friday, to launch a new report) ‘would not work’ for them, the email said. “Azerbaijan is not in a position to welcome Amnesty’s mission to Baku at the present time”.

Then it continued, taking Orwellian “newspeak” to a new level:

“Considering the importance the Government of Azerbaijan attaches to working with international NGOs in connection with democracy and human rights related issues, we would suggest that the mission is postponed to a later stage and take place after the European Games.”

The note didn’t spell out what the Government means by the terms ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ or indeed attaching importance to them, but its definition must be significantly different from how the rest of the world understands them.

That’s because as preparations have been under way for what will no doubt be an extravagant opening ceremony for the European Games on Friday and for the two week event that will see 6,000 athletes from 50 countries take part in 20 sports, the already repressive government of Ilham Aliyev has embarked on a particularly harsh crackdown on human rights.

Azerbaijan is using these Games as a PR tool to launder its image to the world. It wants to show itself as a modern, dynamic, progressive country. What's going on behind the scenes, however, is the complete opposite

Naomi Westland, Amnesty International

Azerbaijan is using these Games as a PR tool to launder its image to the world. It wants to show itself as a modern, dynamic, progressive country. What’s going on behind the scenes, however, is the complete opposite.

The report we would have launched in Baku (Azerbaijan: The Repression Games – The Voices You Won’t Hear at the First European Games) but that has been launched from Tbilisi and London instead, outlines how over the last year Azerbaijani journalists, human rights lawyers, opposition members and pro-democracy youth activists have been harassed, arrested, jailed, attacked and tortured in a crackdown on dissent that has intensified as the Games approached.

There are at least 20 prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan, locked up for criticising or challenging the authorities. Some of them have been charged with fraud and tax evasion, others with drugs possession, hooliganism, even treason.

They are people like the director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, Leyla Yunus, arrested last summer after calling for a boycott of the Games on human rights grounds. She has been held in pre-trial detention since then. And Rasul Jafarov, head of the Human Rights Club, who had been planning a ‘Sport for Rights’ campaign around the Games. He was recently sentenced to six and a half years in prison.

Many others have fled the country, while those who remain are often too fearful to speak out against abuses committed by the authorities because of threats to themselves or their families.

The notice we received from the embassy yesterday came after a campaigner from another London-based human rights organization, Platform, was detained on arrival at Baku airport earlier in the day, and later put on a flight out of the country. It also came after a handful of reports in preceding weeks of journalists not being granted visas or accreditation to the Games, and what looked like a deliberate delay by the Azerbaijan embassy in the Netherlands over a visa for one of my colleagues who was due to join us in Baku. What started as a domestic clampdown appears to have gone international.

The European Games were devised by the European Olympic Committee, which is part of the Olympic movement, governed by the Olympic Charter. The Charter claims to uphold the values of peace, respect and mutual understanding and pledges to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of society. It’s hard to see how any of these values can be honoured in a country with an already appalling human rights record that has used an Olympic event to crack down on freedom of expression even harder.

There could still be a positive legacy from these Games though. This is where the international community – including national, regional and global sports organizations – could play a key role. They could use their influence to urge an end to the crackdown and demand the release of all those unfairly imprisoned. Their silence so far has been shameful. The German Olympic Committee has spoken out against abuses but it is the only one. Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani government continues to say black is white, to target those who challenge, criticize or expose its wrongdoings and to press ahead with its image laundering operation. At some point, silence becomes complicity. I think we’re getting close.