By Mina Muradova (05/13/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
The Olympic torch has been lit in Azerbaijan and started a journey through 60 cities and regions of the country. In one month, Azerbaijan will host the inaugural European Games, a sort of continental Olympics that convene 6,000 athletes from more than 50 member countries of the European Olympic Committees (EOC).
The government’s preparations include 18 competition venues, including a US$ 500 million Baku Olympic Stadium, development of city infrastructure and an unprecedented crackdown on political dissent.
On May 12, Index on Censorship and a number of other organizations signed a joint letter to Lord Sebastian Coe of the British Olympic Association, to highlight violations against freedom of expression and threats to human rights defenders in Azerbaijan ahead of the European Games.
“On behalf of the Sport for Rights coalition, we are writing to bring your attention to the unprecedented and mounting crackdown in Azerbaijan, which has resulted in dozens of political arrests, including prominent journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists … In the run-up to the European Games, which will take place in Baku on June 12-28, we ask you to publicly support the Azerbaijani people and the rights to free expression, association, and other fundamental freedoms,” the letter says.
The authors of the letter asked Coe to publicly condemn the clampdown, calling for the release of Azerbaijan’s political prisoners: “In making such a statement, you would send a signal to Azerbaijani civil society that they are not alone in their struggle for fundamental freedoms.”
Last summer, a group of Azerbaijani human rights activists launched the Sport for Rights campaign. The campaign has a simple objective: to draw attention to the human rights situation in Azerbaijan in the context of the European Games. As indicated in hundreds of credible reports by media outlets, NGOs and governments, the Azerbaijani government has deployed a wide range of means to repress this initiative.
Observers say that since Baku was awarded the games in 2012, targeted political repression has increased drastically. In April, Rasul Jafarov, an activist and organizer of the Sports for Rights campaign, was sentenced to six and a half years in prison. He was sentenced for illegal business activities, evading taxes, and abuse of power. But it is widely believed that these charges are false, and that his real “crime” was monitoring and reporting on criminal cases against journalists and his successful awareness campaigns highlighting violations of freedom of expression, assembly, and association in Azerbaijan. His “Sing for Democracy” and “Arts for Democracy” campaigns drew attention to Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record, and his planned “Sport for Rights” campaign would have done the same in the run up to the European Games.
A few days after Jafarov’s conviction, the same court sentenced Intigam Aliyev, a leading human rights lawyer who has filed hundreds of cases with the European Court of Human Rights, to seven and a half years behind bars, again on bogus charges. Both had been detained since August 2014.
In early May, Faraj Karimov, a well-known social media activist and leading member of the opposition Musavat party, was handed a six-and-a half year sentence by a Baku court. He was arrested in July 2014 and accused of possessing illegal narcotics. So was his brother Siraj – also a Musavat member – who was given a six-year jail term this March.
Karimov was the administrator of ISTEFA (Resign), which was the largest Azerbaijani-language page on Facebook with 300,000 subscribers before it was closed down in July 2013. He then created a page called BASTA, which has 155,000 subscribers, and was also administrator of the Musavat party’s website.
He declined to address the court at the end of his trial, saying, “I have been arrested for my struggle against an authoritarian regime. If I spoke at a trial that flouts the law, it would be of great benefit to those who ordered my arrest.”
Amnesty International, which has designated both Karimov brothers as prisoners of conscience, said last year that when Faraj was arrested, he was questioned about Facebook, not drugs.
In order to promote the Games, their organizers launched a campaign in social media by hijacking the official hashtag of the European Games, #HelloBaku. In March, the organizers announced a competition for the most creative photo – the winner would get tickets to the games’ opening ceremony, and was announced in early May.
But as Index on Censorship later wrote, the contest backfired with “a number of social media users instead using #HelloBaku to highlight Azerbaijan’s poor record on human rights. One such video was posted by Dinara Yunus, the daughter of Leyla and Arif Yunus who are imprisoned since last summer. She asked President Aliyev “What are you scared Mr. President? Why do you choose repression over freedom?”
According to the initiators of the Sport for Rights coalition, “In the run-up to the European Games, we believe that public condemnation of the crackdown by [international] bodies could help achieve tangible, democratic change at this crucial time.”