Baku 2015: The foreign manpower behind Azerbaijan’s games

Activists hijacked a hashtag used to promote a contest to win tickets to the opening ceremony of the Baku European Games (Photo: Amnesty International)

Human rights groups hijacked a hashtag used to promote a contest to win tickets to the opening ceremony of the Baku European Games (Photo: Amnesty International)

President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan has high hopes for the European Games; the brand new, European Olympic Committee-backed regional sporting event which kicks off Friday 12 June in Baku. According to the organising committee BEGOC, Baku 2015 — with an estimated price tag of some £5.4 billion — will “showcase Azerbaijan as a vibrant and modern European nation of great achievement”. But it seems the event is not down to Azerbaijani achievements alone: from promotions to operations, foreign manpower has played a significant role in making Baku 2015 a reality.

Brit Simon Clegg, former chief executive of the British Olympic Association and Ipswich Town football club, is the CEO of the games. He took over when American Jim Scherr, who has previously overseen US Olympic teams, stepped down in 2014. Dimitris Papaioannou, the Greek artistic director of the opening ceremony of the 2004 Athens Olympics, will reprise this role in Baku. Meanwhile, British marketing firm 1000heads was behind a social media competition to give away tickets to the show. James Hadley, Cirque du Soleil’s senior artistic director, will take the reins of the closing ceremony, with the help of creative director Libby Hyland, who previously worked on the Pan American Games. The promo video was directed by American Joel Peissig, signed to the production company of Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ridley Scott. UK/US-based major events company Broadstone is taking care of day-to-day business on the ground, from transport, to human resources, to security. And the list goes on.

Sporting stars have also made their mark even before the start of the games. “Baku 2015” has for months been emblazoned on the shirts of Spanish football giants Atletico Madrid. A number of participants — from British taekwondo athlete Jade Jones, to French rhythmic gymnast Kseniya Moustafaeva, to Serbia’s 3×3 basketball team of Dušan Domović Bulut, Marko Savic, Marko Zdero and Dejan Majstorovic — have been named international athlete ambassadors.

While most contemporary mega sporting events are, to an extent, multinational operations, the situation in Azerbaijan follows a familiar pattern. The oil rich country — ruled by President Aliyev since 2003, when he took over from his father Heydar — has for some time relied on foreign input in its ongoing international rebranding project. Meanwhile, the government has been cracking down on human rights at home.

Take for instance the modernisation and beautification of downtown Baku. The flame towers dominating the skyline were designed by global architecture firm HOK. The in-demand London-based design studio Blue Sky Hospitality has worked on over a dozen restaurants in the city over the past five years. This includes at least five in Port Baku, dubbed the city’s “premier luxury address” by the glossy, internationally distributed magazine edited by the president’s daughter Leyla Aliyeva. Azerbaijan has also worked with foreign public relations companies, such as the Berlin-based Consultum Communications and global firm APCO, with headquarters in Washington. The government even hired former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as an advisor in 2014. According to independent news site, the government in 2011 allocated AZN 30,000,000 (£18.7 million) in the state budget to promoting Azerbaijan, though this figure is thought to be an underestimate.

But the push to paint Azerbaijan as a forward-looking state has not translated into progress on the human rights front. Over the past year alone, 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, with the help of overt foreign PR and the prestige of working with well-known international names, is presenting a sanitised version of Azerbaijan to the world, to whitewash its poor rights record. In other words: the government targets those challenging its representation of Azerbaijan, and the PR blitz in turn masks the crackdown. “We are facing a huge PR and propaganda machine from Azerbaijan supported by oil companies in the west,” Azerbaijani journalist Emin Milli said at an expert panel debate ahead of the games.

“The Aliyev government has used the revenues of the oil and gas fields to finance a stream of grandiose projects — from the Heydar Aliyev Airport, to the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre and the European Games. In the realisation of these projects it has hired a number of international corporations. British companies are particularly heavily involved, for example in constructing the airport, designing the centre, and co-ordinating and branding the games,” said James Marriott from the London-based NGO Platform.

Or, as Simon Clegg told The Independent in 2014, British companies “are absolutely at the forefront of winning contracts over here [Azerbaijan] for the successful delivery of the games”.

Platform’s campaigning is focused around BP, the British oil company which has long worked in Azerbaijan and is one of the lead sponsors of the games. “In binding itself so closely to these foreign corporations the Aliyev government is building the international political support that it recognises is so vital, especially as it tries to counter the growing dissent in Azerbaijan,” added Marriott.

Rebecca Vincent coordinates the Sport for Rights campaign, which has worked to raise awareness around the crackdown on government critics in the lead-up to the games. The movement was initiated by Rasul Jafarov before his arrest. Those wanting to raise human rights issues are “fighting this massive army of very well paid PR firms throughout Europe,” said Vincent.

“The Azerbaijani government’s PR has been quite effective. They have been successful in promoting Azerbaijan as this modern, glamorous country. We’re working very hard to show that there is more to the story; that there is a more sinister side,” she added.

According to Azerbaijani journalist Arzu Geybulla, reaction from her countrymen and women to their government’s strategy has been mixed, and dependent on how much information they have. Some are simply preoccupied with putting food on the table and are unaware of the extent of foreign involvement; others, often young and western-educated, know what’s going on, but are reluctant to challenge the status quo directly.

She categorises foreign companies and individuals working in Azerbaijan in a similar way. Some, she says, know nothing about Azerbaijan and are just there to take the opportunity given to them. Others have limited understanding of the state of human rights in the country, and “care very little about imprisoned journalists or beaten bloggers”. The final group, where she places the EOC, is fully aware of situation on the ground, “and yet they’re saying that athletes are coming there to compete, and the crackdown shouldn’t prevent a sports competition taking place”.

Index queried a number of individuals and firms associated with the games.

One person was willing to speak on the condition of anonymity. While stressing that the presence of international staff and companies is business as usual for large sporting events, the source dubbed the situation at the Baku Games “a little bit weird”, especially noting the “big British connection”.

The person said they didn’t know much about Azerbaijan or its political climate when taking on the job, but spoke of their shock upon arriving in the capital. “Baku is like Monaco crashing into Tijuana … it’s one giant set,” they said, dubbing it a city of facades. “It seemed pretty desperate.” Though the source said they would consider speaking out about the situation, they worried about the impact it might have on the locals they worked with.

1000heads, the London-based company behind #HelloBaku (a social media competition which was hijacked by activists to draw attention to human rights and free speech violations in Azerbaijan), told Index they are no longer involved in the games.

As for athlete ambassador Jade Jones, she says she is focusing purely on the sporting side: “We go to different places. Some places are better than others. I’m just going there to do my job and perform.”

Clegg, meanwhile, has stood firm when pressed on human rights concerns: “Look where they’ve come from – decades of Soviet rule and oppression,” he told The Guardian. “You don’t go from there to there overnight. If you do, you end up with chaos and civil disorder.”

This echoes the government narrative, which describes of a country that may not be perfect, but that is on the right track. “Azerbaijan, as a young democracy and dynamically developing country, which demonstrated goodwill in hosting the first Baku Games, deserves appreciation and understanding, too,” a foreign ministry spokesperson told the BBC.

But with the ongoing jailing and judicial harassment of vocal critics of the government being widely labelled an unprecedented crackdown, many disagree with this interpretation. Council of Europe human rights commissioner Nils Muižnieks co-wrote a recent op-ed arguing that human rights cannot be ignored during the games, and encouraging athletes going to Baku to use their platform to speak out. Some seem to have already taken him up on this: German athletes last week called for the release of Azerbaijan’s political prisoners. “Although I do not usually address directly private companies, I can say that I would like to see the business field taking into more consideration human rights related issues which may arise from its activities,” Muižnieks told Index.

On the day of the opening ceremony, Jafarov will be going back to court. With this, Rebecca Vincent says the government has the opportunity to send a message more powerful than the sure to be spectacular show taking place in Baku National Stadium. “I’d remind the Azerbaijani authorities that the best PR would be to stop the human rights crackdown and release the political prisoners,” she said.

“Rasul’s release would be a step in the right direction.”

This article was posted on 9 June 2015 at

Rebecca Vincent: Britain’s next prime minister must use European Games to stand up for human rights in Azerbaijan

From top left: Arif Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, Leyla Yunus, Khadija Ismayilova, Intigam Aliyev and

From top left: Arif Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, Leyla Yunus, Khadija Ismayilova, Intigam Aliyev and Anar Mammadli – some of the government critics jailed on trumped up charges in Azerbaijan

For the first time since the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, the oil-rich, rights-poor nation of Azerbaijan is drawing widespread international attention. This June, the country is poised to host the inaugural European Games, which will bring an estimated 6,000 athletes from 50 countries to the capital city of Baku to compete in 20 sports.

Ahead of the games, the Azerbaijani regime has spent a great deal of time and money to promote a positive image abroad. At home, however, it is engaged in a brutal human rights crackdown. This has particularly intensified over the past year, as the authorities have worked aggressively to silence all forms of criticism and dissent.

Dozens of democracy activists are now in prison, including celebrated investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova who was given this year’s PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, and Leyla Yunus, one of the country’s most prominent human rights defenders. They, and many others, have been jailed on spurious charges, with some facing prison sentences of up to 12 years. Meanwhile, press freedom campaigner Emin Huseynov is trapped in the Swiss embassy in Baku, facing arrest if he leaves. These individuals have been targeted for their work defending the rights of others and telling the truth about the situation in their country.

So far, the European Olympic Committees has been happy to look the other way, stating that was “not the EOC’s place to challenge or pass judgment on the legal or political processes of a sovereign nation”. Likewise, the event sponsors do not seem bothered: BP stated that “seeking to influence the policies of sovereign governments” was not part of its role. The Sport for Rights campaign hopes, however, that the next prime minister will think twice.

The Sport for Rights campaign's take on Baku European Games mascots Jeyran and Nar. (Image: Sport for Rights)

The Sport for Rights campaign’s take on Baku European Games mascots Jeyran and Nar. (Image: Sport for Rights)

As members of the campaign, Article 19, Index on Censorship, and Platform have written to the leaders of the UK’s Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Green parties on the eve of the general election. The campaign urged them to make statements condemning the on-going attacks on human rights and calling for the release of political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

Sport for Rights also called on the party leaders to make their participation in the opening ceremony of the games contingent upon the release of the country’s jailed journalists and human rights defenders. This is not a call for a boycott of the games by athletes or the public, but a request for the next prime minister not to miss a key opportunity to take an important stand.

In the face of growing repression in Azerbaijan, the response from the British government has so far been weak and sporadic. Statements are occasionally made; the most recent expressed that the UK was “dismayed” by the sentencing of human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, but stopped short of calling for his release, as did the previous statement conveying that the UK was “deeply troubled” by the sentencing of human rights defender Rasul Jafarov. But beyond statements, little else has been done — at least in the public eye.

For a country so intent on promoting its image as a modern, glamorous, international player, key political figures taking a public stand on human rights issues would have a real chance of impacting positive, democratic change. The European Games presents a timely opportunity for the next prime minister to do just that, sending the clear signal that human rights are important in the bilateral relationship.

Conversely, attendance by the prime minister at the opening ceremony of the games in the current climate, without securing the release of the jailed journalists and human rights defenders, would only serve to effectively endorse an increasingly authoritarian regime. In helping to whitewash Azerbaijan’s ever-worsening image, the UK would only end up tarnishing its own.

This article was posted on 6 May 2015 at

Azerbaijan: Seven things you need to know ahead of the Baku European Games

Editorial cartoon on the Baku European Games From Meydan TV (Image: Meydan TV)

Editorial cartoon on the Baku European Games From Meydan TV (Image: Meydan TV)

In six weeks, the inaugural European Olympic Committee (EOC)-backed European Games will start in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku. Meanwhile, concerns about the human rights situation in the country are mounting. The latest chapter in the ongoing crackdown on government critics saw pro-democracy activist Rasul Jafarov and human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev sentenced to 6.5 and 7.5 years in prison, respectively.

Against this backdrop, Index on Censorship, Human Rights Watch and Article 19 on 28 April hosted Give Human Rights a Sporting Chance in Azerbaijan at the Frontline Club in London. The event addressed the question of how journalists can effectively cover the games given the full scope of social and political issues in Azerbaijan.

From left: Emin Milli, Rebecca Vincent and Georgi Gogia speaking at (Photo: Index on Censorship)

From left: Emin Milli, Rebecca Vincent and Giorgi Gogia speaking speaking on the crackdown on government critics in Azerbaijan ahead of this summer’s Baku European Games (Photo: Index on Censorship)

On the panel were Emin Milli, a former political prisoner in Azerbaijan, now director of Meydan TV; Rebecca Vincent, coordinator of the Sport for Rights campaign; and Giorgi Gogia, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on Azerbaijan who was recently denied entry into the country. These were some of their key points:

1) Azerbaijan’s human rights community has been all but wiped out over the past year

2) In light of the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, the EOC is not free of responsibility…

3) …and neither are European states

4) The Azerbaijani government has invested in an international PR campaign — and it’s working

5) The games are not popular among ordinary Azerbaijanis

6) Sports journalists should report on more than just sports during the games

7) Despite Azerbaijan’s current climate, human rights activism remains important and worthwhile

This article was posted on 29 April 2015 at

Twitter users hijack #HelloBaku to shine spotlight on Azerbaijan’s human rights abuses

From top left: Arif Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, Leyla Yunus, Khadija Ismayilova, Intigam Aliyev and

From top left: Arif Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, Leyla Yunus, Khadija Ismayilova, Intigam Aliyev and Anar Mammadli – some of the government critics jailed on trumped up charges in Azerbaijan

Social media users have hijacked the hashtag #HelloBaku to draw attention to human rights and free speech violations in Azerbaijan ahead of this summer’s inaugural European Games in the capital Baku.

Baku 2015 organisers launched the hashtag contest on 4 March 2015, as part of a promotional push ahead of the games, which start on 12 June. Social media users were invited to enter by posting a photo or video of themselves holding a sign with #HelloBaku written on it. The winner, set to be announced this week, will be awarded two tickets to the opening ceremony, as well as a night at a luxury hotel and flights.

But the campaign backfired, as a number of social media users instead used #HelloBaku to highlight Azerbaijan’s poor record on human rights. According to the latest estimates, there are over 100 political prisoners in the country. Since last summer, authorities have been engaged in an unprecedented onslaught against its most prominent critics, jailing investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, pro-democracy activist Rasul Jafarov, human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev and others on trumped up charges. On 9 April, prosecutors asked for a 9-year sentence for Jafarov, who stands accused of tax evasion and malpractice, among other things.

On 30 March, the same day the contest closed, Human Rights Watch researcher Giorgi Gogia, who was set to attend the trial hearing of Aliyev and Jafarov, was blocked from entering Azerbaijan. Traveling from his native Georgia, Gogia does not require a visa to go to Azerbaijan. Despite this, his passport was taken away and he was held at the Heydar Aliyev International Airport in Baku for 31 hours without explanation, before being sent back to Tbilisi.

Azerbaijan’s authorities, led by President Ilham Aliyvev, have been accused by human rights groups of running an expensive international PR operation to whitewash rights violations, and present the country as a “modern, outward looking state“. According to the Baku European Games Operation Committee (BEGOC), the games will “showcase Azerbaijan as a vibrant and modern European nation of great achievement”.

London-based marketing firm 1000heads, whose clients include Yahoo, Procter & Gamble and Lego, worked with Baku 2015 organisers on #HelloBaku. Index contacted 1000heads to ask whether they were aware of criticisms against Azerbaijan’s human rights record before taking on the job, and their response to the hijacking of the hashtag.

“We were working with BEGOC, the Baku European Games Operation Committee, which is responsible for delivering the event for athletes from the 49 National Olympic Committees of Europe. We are no longer involved,” 1000heads CEO Mike Rowe said in an email.

This article was posted on 8 April 2015 at