Amnesty International has been blocked from entering Azerbaijan ahead of the inaugural European Games, amid a clampdown on free speech designed to quell critics, the Guardian reports
The human rights organization had been planning to launch a new report highlighting the crackdown on free speech, independent media and government critics ahead of the Baku 2015 European Games.
But just as Amnesty officials prepared to travel, they received a message from the Azerbaijan embassy in London late on Tuesday, June 9, afternoon stating that it was “not in a position to welcome the Amnesty mission to Baku at the present time” and suggesting any visit should be postponed until after the games.
The decision to bar Amnesty came as Emma Hughes, a human rights campaigner with Platform who has previously been critical of BP’s role in co-operating with Azerbaijan, was stopped from entering the country.
After arriving on Tuesday, Hughes, who had been given press accreditation to cover the games, was told she was on a “red list” and held in the terminal before being put on a flight out of Baku.
The European Games, featuring 6,000 athletes including 160 from Team GB, begin on Friday in Baku’s new 68,000-capacity national stadium.
The European Olympic Committee, led by the Irish IOC member Pat Hickey, and the organizing committee, led by former British Olympic Association chief executive Simon Clegg, hope the event will establish the European Games as a fixture in the sporting calendar.
But the build-up has been overshadowed by concerns that Azerbaijan, in using the event to promote itself to the world, is simultaneously cracking down on critics inside the country, the Guardian notes.
The six months preceding the games have seen a string of critics arrested on what are widely agreed to be trumped-up charges.
They include an investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova, who won a PEN prize earlier this year for her work exposing corruption, and Intigam Aliyev, a human rights lawyer who has taken more than 300 cases to the European Court of Human Rights.
“It is deeply ironic that the launch of a briefing outlining how critical voices in the country have been systematically silenced ahead of the European Games cannot be held. But rather than bury this message, the actions of the authorities have only highlighted their desperate attempts to create a criticism-free zone around the games,” said Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia.
“Far from advancing the goals of press freedom and human dignity enshrined in the Olympic Charter, the legacy of these games will be to further encourage repressive authorities around the world to view major international sporting events as a ticket to international prestige and respectability.”
Amnesty has said there are at least 20 prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan, detained solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression.
Campaigners within the country have drawn up a list of at least 80 political prisoners and many more have faced harassment from the authorities, had their assets seized or had to withstand pressure being placed on their families.
The Russian president Vladimir Putin is among the world leaders who will attend Friday’s opening ceremony. Britain will be represented by a junior minister, Tobias Elwood.
“Azerbaijan’s hosting of these games provided a rare opportunity to secure improvements in the country’s human rights record,” said Krivosheev.
“But the failure of the European Olympic Committee and the international community to speak up for those trying to speak out, has allowed the Azerbaijani authorities to progressively squeeze the life out of independent, critical civil society.”