Azerbaijaini Presidency / Vugar Amrullayev / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

European Games cost Azerbaijan’s activists

As Baku prepares to host continent’s top athletes, international community must protest regime’s repression

May 12, 2015 2:00AM ET

In exactly one month, Azerbaijan will host the first European Games, a sort of regional Olympics for the 50 member nations of the European Olympic Committees (EOC). The government’s preparations include five new sports venues, a $482 million main stadium and an unprecedented crackdown on political dissent.

Oil-rich Azerbaijan, ruled by the same party since 1992 after the breakup of the Soviet Union, has never been a paradise of human rights. But since the country’s capital, Baku, was awarded the games in 2012, targeted political repression has increased drastically. Just last month, Rasul Jafarov, an activist who had been organizing a Sports for Rights campaign to coincide with the games, was sentenced to six and a half years in prison. His charge: abuse of power.

What’s at stake at the European Games? In 1988, European Olympians captured 74 percent of medals, but by 2008, this number had plummeted to 37 percent. When European sport honchos announced the new event, they hoped to put Europe back on the path to Olympic dominance.

But choosing an autocracy such as Azerbaijan as host is a step in the wrong direction. Baku 2015 features the sort of burdensome baggage that the Olympic movement supposedly wishes to leave behind — lavish spending, political repression and positive PR for authoritarian regimes.

Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has dumped nearly $10 billion into building for the European Games. His regime is ponying up for the travel costs and accommodations for all 6,000 participating athletes. Organizers hope to attract international investment and create a credible bid for the 2024 or 2028 Olympic Games.

The victims of this push for international glamor include Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent investigative journalist, translator and contributor to Radio Free Europe. In December 2014 she was detained on spurious charges and tossed in prison, where she has languished ever since. Amnesty International dubbed it “a blatant bid to gag free media.” Numerous prominent writers, including “The Kite Runner” author Khaled Hosseini, have demanded her release. Last week, the PEN American Center awarded Ismayilova its prestigious Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.

Her case is not unique. Human Rights Watch has meticulously detailed Aliyev’s crackdown:

The Azerbaijani authorities have used a range of bogus criminal charges, including narcotics and weapons possession, tax evasion, hooliganism, incitement and even treason to arrest or imprison at least 35 human rights defenders, political and civil activists, journalists and bloggers.

This spate of human rights violations has done nothing to dissuade Baku 2015’s corporate sponsors, including Olympic stalwarts such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble as well as behemoths BP, Nestle and Motorola. For corporate partners, the opportunity to promote their brands outweighs any humanitarian concern. 

If the Olympic movement can’t stand up even to geopolitical minnow Azerbaijan, how can we expect it to act in the face of sharks from Beijing, the front-runner for the 2022 Winter Olympics?

The International Olympic Committee  (IOC) has been similarly mum. Although the Baku Games are not an IOC event, the games are officially linked to the EOC, which abides by the Olympic Charter.

When IOC President Thomas Bach met with Aliyev last year, the two leaders traded bromides about the power of sport to change society. During a high-level meeting of European Olympic luminaries, Bach was awarded the EOC’s Order of Merit as well as an honorary doctorate from a state university. In return, Bach reportedly presented Aliyev with an IOC commemorative medal.

It is not too late for the IOC and the EOC to take a principled stand. They could find clear justification in the Olympic Charter, which forbids “discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion.” The charter obliges Olympic organizations “to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic movement.”

The political repression in Azerbaijan fits this description as tightly as a Lycra tracksuit. If the Olympic movement can’t stand up even to geopolitical minnow Azerbaijan, how can we expect it to act in the face of sharks from Beijing, the front-runner for the 2022 Winter Olympics?

Olympic officials need to pressure Azerbaijan to release all wrongfully detained activists and journalists before the Baku Games begin. World leaders should send a strong message by boycotting the event. And the EOC should adopt clear standards for future European Games so the most egregious human-rights violators are not allowed to host the event.

Jane Buchanan, the associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, told me:

The EOC has a clear responsibility to uphold the Olympic principles it claims to advance, including sport’s role in promoting human dignity, and not let Baku enjoy the fanfare and prestige of the games while it blatantly denies the dignity and basic rights of dozens of journalists and activists the government has thrown behind bars.

Speaking at the United Nations last month, Bach admitted, “Sport is not an isolated island in the sea of society.” Politics and sports are always intertwined. Now is the time for the leaders of the Olympic movement to take action, before they allow a dictator to conceal his crimes with Olympic luster. 

Jules Boykoff teaches political science at Pacific University in Oregon. He is the author of “Activism and the Olympics,” “Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games” and the forthcoming "Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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