Baku: a city of stark contrasts ahead of European Games in Azerbaijan

Protesters clash with authorities in Baku. Credit: Demotix

By Natalia Nozadze, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Azerbaijan

Baku is a city of contrasts. Elegant parks with elaborate fountains sit alongside abandoned plots of land covered with mud and rubble. Glass towers soar over the cobbled streets and winding lanes of the walled old town. Designer shops fill the city centre while dirt-poor shanty towns are hidden from view behind a fence on the road into the city from the airport. Everywhere you look something is being built. A road, an apartment block, another park, a stadium.

One hundred days from now, the gas-and-oil-rich Azerbaijani capital will host the first ever European Games, a two-week sporting extravaganza overseen by the European Olympic Committee. The city will play host to 6,000 athletes from 50 countries – whose expenses are, incidentally, being paid for by the Games organisers – to compete in 20 sports. President Aliyev will be hoping for a legacy that shows his country as modern, wealthy and sophisticated enough to pull off a complex international event.

But the most striking contrast here is between the image of modernity the authorities want to show the world, and the reality behind the scenes. The first European Games – bound by the Olympic Charter that embraces values of freedom and inclusiveness – coincides with the worst 12 months of repression since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, according to a new Amnesty International report published today.

Twenty two prisoners of conscience, including prominent human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers and activists, are languishing in prisons on trumped-up charges. Others have been forced to flee the country or abandon their critical work.

A city that plans to gather thousands of athletes and visitors prohibits the peaceful gathering of its own citizens anywhere visible in the town. While the grandiose stadiums, hotels and conference halls are being built for international visitors of the city, local activists struggle to find a space and venues where they can meet and work.

Driving through Baku today, billboards were lit in celebration of 100 days remaining before the Games begin. But the mood was less celebratory for the family and friends of Intigam Aliyev as they gathered outside of the Baku court to attend his trial. Aliyev, a prominent human rights lawyer, was arrested on trumped-up charges last August, as he was working on submitting new cases of human rights violations to the European Court of Human Rights. Other prominent human rights defenders, including Leyla and Arif Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, Khadija Ismaiylova and Anar Mammadli, also shared his fate.

Azerbaijan may be a safe country for athletes taking part in the 100 metres, but defending rights and free speech is a dangerous game here. Those who champion them receive harassment and prison sentences instead of medals.

Arrests and repression have had the effect of paralysing civil society, shutting down discussion and debate. But government critics pose no threat to stability and are merely trying to ensure that Azerbaijan becomes the rights respecting democracy that President Aliyev proclaims it to be.

The government appears increasingly paranoid as it looks to the future – oil reserves will only last another 20 years, for gas it’s 50. When the boom is over, what then

And since the crisis began in Ukraine, the international community – keen to access a more secure source of oil and gas than the Russian market – has  been remarkably silent about Azerbaijan’s human rights record. With their eyes on the petro-dollars, their lips have been sealed. That is horribly short-sighted and a deep disservice to those currently languishing behind bars. It simply means that Baku has been able to get away with it.

Turgut, a young activist I met earlier today, said Baku 2015 could make a difference.

“These games may be the last chance to have our voices heard and to direct international attention to our plight, because tomorrow might be too late.”

Amnesty is calling for all Azerbaijan’s prisoners of conscience to be released immediately and unconditionally. That would be a fitting legacy for these Games.
This oped was originally published in the International Business Times.

For more information, see our latest report:

Guilty of defending rights: Azerbaijan’s human rights defenders and activists behind bars.