European Games in parallel to political persecution

Azerbaijan is hosting first European Games. On June 12th, grand welcoming ceremony was held in the specially built arena in Baku. Nevertheless behind the glaring glassy buildings for European games there are serious human rights issues in the country – according to international organizations Azerbaijan has tens of political prisoners. Human Rights Defenders consider that President Ilham Aliyev used the Olympic Games to divert attention of world leaders from human rights problems in Azerbaijan.

It is interesting to know the total cost of the Olympic Games for the country budget. Reportedly, about 10 billion USD was spent on the constructions of various buildings and facilities as well as for the preparation works. Besides that, Azerbaijan president will reimburse travel, accommodation and participation expenses for 6 000 athletes.

You first feel spirit of European games in the Baku Airport – all banners and screens report about the launched Olympic Games. Colorful plates on the roads and buildings, decorated taxis and buses, specially uniformed girls and boys.

Huge flags of different countries are hanging over the residential buildings in the specially constructed Olympic village which show that sportsmen from several countries and their teams are already accommodated there.

Locals have different opinion about European games. Liberali tried to learn the opinion of Azerbaijan people in public places. Part of them refuses to speak at all or avoids expressing personal opinions in public. Very few respondents agreed to speak publicly.

“I cannot see any positive in the European Games. You know the purpose of organizing these games in our country was to acquaint our country to the world. But it should have happened in different methods like better healthcare and education systems. They have spent a lot of money on these games and this money was paid by us. I cannot see anything positive because there are many other serious problems in the country,” local 23-year-old young man told Liberali.

Roads, sport arenas, buildings were specially constructed for the European Games; infrastructure was improved, cinema house was opened for guests where they will watch Azerbaijani movies for free. Monitors were installed in taxis where tourists can watch games live during traveling. Of course locals will enjoy all these facilities after the Olympic Games are over.

However, it was not the only preparation measures taken by the authority before the European Games. Azerbaijani government tried to hush the opposition voices with several methods. So-called black list of critical journalists, politicians and human rights defenders was created. Either travel bans were imposed on them or they faced problems at the airport when travelling. Those who managed to leave the country continue their activities in European states. One part of opponents stayed in the country and tries to find safe shelter inside Azerbaijan whilst another part was sentenced to imprisonment for equal charges.

Two months ago the Baku Court sentenced two human rights defenders Intigam Aliyev and Rasul Jafarov to 7, 5 and 6, 5 years [respectively] imprisonment. Several hours before the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games the Baku Court for Administrative Cases intended to start trial against the nongovernmental organization Institute for Reporters Freedom and Security but it was postponed for unknown reasons already for the second time.

“The Azerbaijani government escalated repression against its critics, marking a dramatic deterioration in its already poor rights record. The authorities convicted or imprisoned at least 33 human rights defenders, political and civil activists, journalists, and bloggers on politically motivated charges,” the World Report 2015 of Human Rights Watch reads about Azerbaijan.

Baku European Games intensified the revenge processes against political opponents. The government had a very negative experience from 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, when human rights defenders used it to attract the attention of world society and launched campaign Sing for Democracy. Rasul Jafarov an Elena Yanus were organizers of the campaign. Soon, it was turned into a larger campaign Art for Democracy. Azerbaijani human rights defenders managed to attract the attention of guest reporters who had arrived in Baku to cover the contest and with their support the local HRDs informed the world about human rights problems in the country.

Consequently, Baku Olympic Games could become a good chance for local HRDs to inform world leaders about local problems. The international community could use the Olympic Games to oppress the local authority and to support political prisoners. The main sponsors and Olympic Committee of Europe could also use some leverages over the Azerbaijan government but it has not happened so far.

Nobody speaks about the human rights issues in Azerbaijan but silence of local society indicates at the tense situation in the country and scared population.

It is noteworthy that despite the promises of the Ministry of Sport and Youth Issues of Azerbaijan and European Olympic Committee to give absolute freedom to journalists to work during European Games, journalists of The Guardian and representatives of the Amnesty International were not allowed to enter the country during European games. Assumed reason was those critical publications which they had published about Baku Olympic Games and Azerbaijan authority.

Human rights have always been problematic in Azerbaijan that was often condemned by international society. However, after the government started oppression on nongovernmental organizations and independent groups with legislative mechanisms the situation got even worse.

In 2009, the Law on Non-Governmental Organizations was amended according to which foreign NGOs were to be registered upon signing the contract with the state authority. In 2011 some criteria were worked out for signing the contract. After Human Rights House Baku organized a critical discussion during the Conference of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe they received the order of the Azerbaijan Minister of Justice on suspending their activities in the country.

The aforementioned events created solid grounds for the 2013 legislative amendments. The law significantly restricted functioning of NGOs and independent, unregistered groups. In accordance to the amended law, initially the NGO and then its grant had to re-register every year. The Ministry of Justice is authorized to issue final decision which in most cases abuses its power against the NGOs. Since 2014 the Ministry has not registered a single grant allocated by foreign NGOs.
As a result bank accounts of about 10 NGOs were frozen and criminal cases were launched against their leaders. Many NGOs had to stop activities.

From today till June 25 Baku hosts European Games. Nobody knows what journalists and group of human rights defenders will do to attract attention of international society and how the local authority will react on their protest. But one thing is clear – their possible campaign will not cause significant changes because if world leaders had a desire to react, they could have used their influence and react on the human rights problems in Azerbaijan long ago.

Ketevan Ghvedashvili


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