One month from now, Azerbaijan’s capital city Baku will host the inaugural European Games, a mega sporting event organized by the European Olympic Committee that will convene 6,000 athletes from more than 50 countries. On June 12, as European leaders and delegations gather in Baku to commence the games, will the eight billion dollar spectacle overshadow the myriad accusations of human rights abuses logged against the country?
Nearly one hundred human rights activists, journalists, bloggers and civil society representatives languish in jails across Azerbaijan, and the crackdown is spreading. And no longer is it just the most prominent activists intimidated, journalists thrown into jail, or media outlets forced to shut down. Now, every outspoken citizen risks jail time on false accusations of being a drug addict, a hooligan, a tax evader, an embezzler, or a traitor.
Take the case of human rights activist Rasul Jafarov. On April 16, he was sentenced to six and a half years in prison for illegal business activities, evading taxes, and abuse of power. But it is widely believed that these charges are false, and that his real “crime” was monitoring and reporting on criminal cases against journalists and his successful awareness campaigns highlighting the violations of freedom of expression, assembly, and association that take place in Azerbaijan. His “Sing for Democracy” and “Arts for Democracy” campaigns drew attention to Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record, and his planned “Sport for Rights” campaign would have done the same in the run up to the European Games. But instead he is in prison.
Another case is that of a prominent rights defender who was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison on April 22, on charges rights groups also say were politically motivated. Intigam Aliyev is no ordinary human rights defender. He has helped lodge over 200 cases with the European Court of Human Rights in defense of those unjustly imprisoned in Azerbaijan.
Khadija Ismayilova, a leading investigative journalist and fierce government critic who authored a number of key investigative reports exposing government corruption and the ruling family’s illegal business activities was silenced as well. Currently serving pre-trial detention, Ismayilova was initially arrested on charges of incitement to suicide, though these charges have since been dropped. In February, authorities added charges of tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, and abuse of power.
But while Azerbaijan tries to silence people like Khadija, the rest of the world recognizes her for her invaluable work. Khadija has received a number of prestigious international awards, and on May 5 received PEN American Center's 2015 Barbara Goldsmith Freedom To Write Award, given annually to “an imprisoned writer persecuted for exercising her right to free expression.”
And Khadija isn’t the only award-winning critic behind bars in Azerbaijan. There is Leyla Yunus, prominent rights activist and recipient of the Knight of French Legion of Honor award. There is Anar Mammadli, a rights activist and recipient of 2014 Vaclav Havel Human Rights Award. Rasu Jafarov is recipient of Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award, which was also given to Leyla Yunus, Intigam Aliyev and Anar Mammadli.
The list of government critics behind bars goes on and on. As the international spotlight is about to be turned to Azerbaijan when it hosts the European Games, will these prisoners remain in the dark? Shouldn’t basic human dignity take precedence over the glitz and pageantry of the games?
For years Azerbaijan has been a country of “concern” or “worry” for Western politicians, analysts, and observers. At times the levels of concern grew into “grave concern” or “extreme worry.” And then even these admonishments disappeared–vanishing in the politics of caviar diplomacy. Those jailed stayed in jail, those who were silenced remained silenced, and more importantly, the authorities in Azerbaijan continued their skillful use of repression and crackdown tactics.
One success story of tackling the crackdown and getting some international attention has been hijacking the official hashtag of the European Games – #HelloBaku. In March, the organizers of the games announced a competition for the most creative photo – the winner would get tickets to the games’ opening ceremony. The winner was announced in early May:
#Baku2015 is proud to announce the winner of #HelloBaku social media contest.
But as Index on Censorship later wrote, the contest backfired with “a number of social media users instead using #HelloBaku to highlight Azerbaijan’s poor record on human rights:
— Jan Kooy (@KooyJan) April 7, 2015
— Wenzel Michalski (@WenzelMichalski) March 26, 2015
But these are just small victories in the face of a much larger and stronger crackdown that requires more urgent attention.
Now is the time to act. Western leaders must pressure the government of Azerbaijan to start respecting the international conventions and agreements it has signed. A more critical approach must be taken against government officials involved in the ongoing harassment of journalists, civil society activists, rights defenders, and peaceful protesters. They need more than just our “concern,” as do all citizens of Azerbaijan.
Arzu Geybullayeva is a Istanbul-based journalist with a background in conflict resolution who has written extensively about Azerbaijan for local and international media, including Al Jazeera and Global Voices. She is a 2014-2015 Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellow with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani Service.