On the eve of the inaugural European Games, taking place in Baku, Azerbaijan, activists from Amnesty International and Platform have been banned from entering the country. Both organisations have been highly critical of President Ilham Aliyev’s government, and its continuing targeting, jailing and prosecution of activists and journalists. Amnesty was set to present its findings on the state of human rights in Azerbaijan at an event in the capital on 10 June.
Emma Hughes of London-based NGO Platform was travelling to Baku on Tuesday afternoon with a press accreditation. After landing she was taken off the plane by security for questioning, where she was told she was on a “red list”. Her passport was taken away and she was held overnight at the airport before being deported. CCTV images of Hughes in detention surfaced in Azerbaijani media on Tuesday.
Platform has been campaigning against British oil company BP’s involvement in the oil rich former Soviet state. Platform’s new book — All that Glitters — Sport, BP and Repression — written by Hughes, will be released on 12 June, the opening day of the games.
“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 said from Baku airport before her deportation.
Amnesty was set to present findings from a research trip they undertook in March at the briefing Azerbaijan: the Repression Games, with four staff members preparing to travel to Baku on the morning of 10 June. Amnesty was informed on Tuesday 9 June, via the Azerbaijani embassy in London, that “Azerbaijan is not in a position to welcome the Amnesty mission to Baku at the present time”, and suggested to postpone the trip until after the games.
Naomi Westland, who works on issues around sports and human rights at Amnesty, was one of the staff members hoping to present in Baku. Speaking from Tiblisi, Georgia, she said everything from visas and plane tickets; to venues, speakers and guests for the briefing had been arranged before the last-minute government U-turn.
“Amnesty being barred proves all the criticism levelled at Azerbaijan has been absolutely right. There has been an intense crackdown on human rights ahead of the European Games. This proves the Azerbaijani authorities want to create a criticism free zone while the world’s media is in attendance. The games are a massive PR exercise to present Azerbaijan as a modern, dynamic, progressive state. Behind the scenes, the reverse is the case. Amnesty has become victims of the repression meted out in Azerbaijan,” Westland told Index.
The banning of Platform and Amnesty comes after a Human Rights Watch researcher, Giorgi Gogia, was denied entry and detained in March at Baku airport for 30 hours, before being deported.
The human rights situation in Azerbaijan has deteriorated in the months leading up to the games. Since last summer, the country’s most prominent critical voices — including investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, human rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus, human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev and pro-democracy campaigner Rasul Jafarov — have been jailed on charges widely dismissed as trumped up and politically motivated. Critics believe the government of President Ilham Aliyev is using the games as and international image laundering exercise.
Politicians, high-level Olympic officials and athletes have in recent weeks faced mounting pressure to use the games to take a stand on the crackdown. The campaigning group Sports for Rights — initiated by Jafarov before his arrest — has called on European leaders to make their attendance of the games conditioned on the release of political prisoners, while Lord Coe, chairman of the British Olympic Association, has been urged to use the games to show support for fundamental rights and freedoms in Azerbaijan. Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner Nils Muižnieks has encouraged games participants to user their platforms to speak out about human rights situation.