Azerbaijan urged to free prisoners before start of European Games
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Azerbaijan urged to free prisoners before start of European Games

Campaigners says that human rights abuses may “taint” the first European Games unless the European Olympic Committees urges the Azerbaijani government to release “unjustly imprisoned” journalists and activists. In a letter to Patrick Hickey, president of the European Olympic Committees, the Sport and Rights Alliance urges the European Olympic Committees to speak out against Azerbaijan’s “harsh” crackdown against government critics and worsening environment for media freedom.

The group says this is at odds with key principles of the Olympic Charter that the European Games are meant to uphold.

Azerbaijan is to host the first European Games in the capital, Baku, from June 12 to 28. An estimated 6,000 athletes from 50 countries are to participate in 20 sports. The games are organized under the auspices of the Olympic Movement.  

Eduard Nazarski, Amnesty International Netherlands director, said, “The European Olympic Committees are in a unique position to raise these pressing human rights concerns with President Aliyev.

“By remaining silent, the European Olympic Committees risk sending a message that it is acceptable for the Azerbaijani government to silence critics while hosting an event that, according to the Olympic Charter, should stand for human dignity and sport at the heart of the harmonious development of society.”

The Alliance is a recently formed coalition including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, FIFPro – World Players’ Union, Football Supporters Europe, Supporters Direct Europe, Terre des Hommes, and Transparency International Germany.

It seeks to ensure that host countries of mega-sporting events respect human rights, the environment, and anti-corruption requirements at all stages of the process – from bidding through construction and preparations to host events as well as during events themselves.

The Alliance says the Azerbaijani government’s detention and imprisonment of leading journalists and human rights activists and its “ongoing harassment” of news outlets, media organizations, human rights groups, and other independent groups and activists “cannot be reconciled” with the Olympic Charter’s principles on press freedom and human dignity,  the alliance said. 

The crackdown on media and independent groups could have a negative impact on the work of the thousands of journalists covering the Baku Games, it is feared.

The Olympic Charter explicitly calls for press freedom among members of the Olympic Movement.

“Given the history of abuses and the intensified crackdown on dissent in Azerbaijan, fundamental human rights are likely to be under attack in the context of the Baku Games,” the letter said.

The Alliance calls on the European Olympic Committees to use leverage with Azerbaijan to take three steps before the June 12 opening ceremony, including the immediate release of all “unjustly imprisoned” activists and putting an end to the “arbitrary” detention of journalists and lawyers.

“The Azerbaijani government is investing billions of dollars and vast amounts of energy in the European Games and in other sports events while aggressively pursuing those who criticize or challenge the authorities,” Nazarski added.

“Media outlets and nongovernmental organizations have been shut down and Amnesty International has identified at least 20 prisoners of conscience, behind bars on trumped up criminal charges that can carry very long prison sentences.’’
By Martin Banks