In 2012, the oil-rich nation of Azerbaijan won the right to host the inaugural European Games after that continent’s Olympic committee decided that its athletes needed a quadrennial competition of its own. Azerbaijan’s victory hardly could be seen as surprising: In an era when cities the world over are shying away from hosting the Olympics because of the massive, resource-sucking costs involved, Azerbaijan was the only nation to submit a bid.
Those Games are set to begin Friday in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan and a city that has seen a flurry of venue-building. But a number of journalists and human rights activists won’t be on hand to document the event, as they’ve been banned from entering the country because they dared question the autocratic reign of President Ilham Aliyev, who came to power in 2003 after an election widely considered to be fraudulent and has since solidified his grasp on the presidency by abolishing term limits and limiting press freedom.
Owen Gibson, a sports reporter for the Guardian in England, was told he would not be allowed to enter the country to cover the event — which will feature 160 British athletes, with all expenses paid by the Azerbaijani government — just three hours before his flight was scheduled to leave. In December, Gibson wrote an extensive story about Azerbaijan’s preparations for the European Games, estimating that the country — which ranks 21st on the list of the world’s oil-producing nations despite being the size of Minnesota — has spent $7.3 billion on infrastructure, a figure the government denies.
But Gibson also addressed Azerbaijan’s shaky human-rights record, which includes “a vicious crackdown on freedom of expression has led to more than 90 arrests on what human rights groups consider to be trumped-up charges.”
He also wrote about journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who has reported on corruption and human-rights abuses in Azerbaijan and said she is routinely harassed by law enforcement there. In December, she was sentenced to two months’ of pre-trial detentinal “on heavily disputed charges of ‘inciting suicide’ in a former colleague.”
Gibson is not alone. Activists from Amnesty International and Platform, two groups that have been highly critical of Aliyev’s regime, also have been banned from entering the country. Emma Hughes of Platform, a non-governmental organization based in London, had a press credential to cover the Games but was told she was on a “red list” upon landing at the Baku airport, where she was held overnight before being deported.
Hughes has protested British oil company BP’s involvement in the former Soviet state.
“I’m being detained on the orders of the BP-Aliyev regime. I may get deported, but over 100 political prisoners in Azerbaijan face years in jail until the oil-funded regime falls. Civil society has been stamped on hard in Baku. Journalists, lawyers, academics, writers and activists have all found themselves behind bars. And yet the Oil Games carry on regardless. The future of this country is imprisoned, yet BP still work hand in hand with this regime,” Hughes told Index on Censorship while she was being detained in Baku.
Azad Rahimov, Azerbaijan’s sports minister, told Gibson in December that his nation sees the European Games as a chance “to position our country on the map of the world and our country on the map of Europe.” But critics take a more cynical view, saying this is merely a vanity project for a country with too much oil money and not enough freedom.
The same charge has been lobbed at officials in Kazakhstan, which is one of two finalists for the 2022 Winter Olympics (Beijing, that bastion of freedom and alpine sports, is the other). Like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan is a relatively anonymous former Soviet republic with scads of oil wealth and an autocratic regime headed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been in power since the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1989.
“The country has never held an election judged to be free or fair by the West,” the Guardian reported earlier this year in a story about how Nazarbayev will again run for re-election in 2016.
In Baku, a new 68,000-seat soccer stadium has been built for the European Games. It will host the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, and in 2020 it will be the site of four games in the European Championship soccer tournament, which will be held all over the continent. Once again, the spotlight will be on Azerbaijan, and this time it will be for an event that the whole world will watch.
“I’m not a big fan of boycotts. But I am a big fan of drawing attention to what the country is trying to do and what it is using these events for,” Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, told Gibson in December. “Athletes, the media and organisers should look at these issues. Would anybody organise an event in North Korea? I don’t want to compare Azerbaijan to North Korea but it shows you can’t ignore the political and social context of the country in which you’re holding an event.”