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First European Games Generate Controversy

FILE - President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev arrives for a meeting on the 5th anniversary of the Eastern Partnership at the Prague Castle in Prague, Czech Republic.
FILE - President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev arrives for a meeting on the 5th anniversary of the Eastern Partnership at the Prague Castle in Prague, Czech Republic.

Athletes across Europe will gather next month in Baku for the inaugural European Games, a triumph for Azerbaijan’s ambitious government -- and an outrage for human rights and anti-corruption activists.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on the leadership of the European Olympic Committees (EOC) Thursday to insist that the government of Azerbaijan release “those imprisoned on politically motivated charges, including journalists and human rights defenders, and to end its crackdown on critical voices,” ahead of the European Games.

“Quick to praise President Ilham Aliyev’s preparation for the inaugural European Games, the EOC leadership has so far maintained a public silence in the face of serious abuse and repression by Azerbaijan’s government against its critics,” said Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The window to finally speak up before the Games open is closing fast, but the EOC still has an opportunity to stand up for Olympic values, including by unambiguously calling for prisoner releases.”

Twelve journalists or bloggers have been arrested on government orders in Azerbaijan. They include Azerbaijan’s leading investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani Service, Radio Azadliq.

“The EOC needs to use its unique leverage with Azerbaijan in the run-up to Baku 2015 to stand up for press freedom and human dignity,” said Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “These values are universal ones that Azerbaijan has voluntarily committed to uphold.”

Talking to VOA’s Azeri Service, Ognianova said that “the EOC and international leaders should press for Azerbaijan to adhere to its voluntarily assumed international commitments regarding human rights and fulfill its obligations on freedom and human dignity.”

Earlier this week, the U.S. State Department called on the Azeri government to release the arrested journalists.

Not Free

Some analysts say that by holding these games, President Ilham Aliyev’s government is trying to portray Azerbaijan as a country with 21st century values, like any other in Europe.

But looking at the reports compiled by international organizations working to ensure press freedom and human rights around the world, Azerbaijan falls among the countries not conforming to the best practices. In its most recent report, Freedom House classified Azerbaijan as “not free” when it comes to press freedom.

Freedom House joined other human rights organizations and former diplomats in a joint letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, asking the United States to impose a visa ban and freeze assets of Azerbaijani officials involved in large-scale human rights abuses.

Keeping Up the Pressure

While some analysts are questioning the wisdom of European countries that promote human rights values around the world for taking part in games hosted by a government with dubious human rights records, others do not see it this way.

Klaus Larres, professor at the University of North Carolina, is an expert on contemporary transatlantic relations and European integration. He hopes that the participation of European countries with good human rights and press freedom record may nudge President Aliyev in the right direction. “These Games cannot do any harm. They may do some good. We don’t know yet. Azerbaijani people are intelligent enough to see that the games and European values are not one and the same,” Larres said.

While the Azerbaijani government is busy preparing for the games, international human rights bodies continue to urge U.S. and European governments to pressure it to release the journalists and human rights activists arrested on trumped up charges.