PATRICK HICKEY, president of the European Olympic Committees, recently pronounced himself satisfied with preparations for the first-ever European Games, which will open in Baku, Azerbaijan, on June 12. “Our expectations are amazingly fulfilled,” he said during a visit to Baku. Mr. Hickey, a judo black belt, has represented Ireland in international sport and been involved in numerous Olympic matters. He’s no neophyte, but his statement revealed a big blind spot.
The European Olympic Committees are committed to the objectives of the Olympic Charter, which includes the “Fundamental Principles of Olympism.” The second paragraph states: “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
That line about human dignity matters a great deal, because the European Games of 2015 are about to be played in a country with a terrible human rights record — one that is growing only worse.
According to an April 13 open letter from human rights activists, scholars and family members of those imprisoned, Azerbaijan has nearly 100 political prisoners, twice as many as Russia and Belarus combined. “Arrests and detentions of journalists, civil society and human rights activists, religious believers and opposition figures have multiplied,” the letter added. Moreover, the regime of President Ilham Aliyev “has targeted domestic and foreign” nongovernmental organizations, “freezing their bank accounts and effectively paralyzing them,” while senior government officials have “engaged in an ugly, anti-Western campaign.”
The Baku games are expected to attract about 6,000 athletes in 20 sports at 16 venues. Some 1,300 journalists have applied for accreditation. But the games will not even come close to fulfilling Olympic ideals unless Mr. Hickey and others call attention to Azerbaijan’s deepening state of tyranny. Controversy has long swirled around the poor human rights records of such Olympic hosts as China and Russia; the games went on. In the case of Azerbaijan, the underside of a repressive government must be exposed before, during and after the athletic extravaganza.
To start, Mr. Hickey should visit the imprisoned journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who investigated corruption for the Azeri service of U.S.-financed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and has been in jail since December on what she describes as politically motivated charges. One of the accusations for which she was initially arrested was that she had incited a man to attempt suicide, which Ms. Ismayilova denied; the man has now stated that he wants the charge withdrawn.
We also suggest that Mr. Hickey call attention to the unjust detention of rights activist Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif, who were imprisoned as a way of silencing them, or any of the others thrown into dark cells in Azerbaijan.
If Europe is to carry the Olympic flame into Baku, then it must be a flame that illuminates the terrible stain Mr. Aliyev is inflicting on Azerbaijan — that of human dignity denied.