Human rights campaigners have called on Uefa and Formula One to learn from the issues raised by the inaugural European Games in Baku, which began on Friday night, and to put pressure on the Azerbaijani government to improve its human rights record before their own looming major events.
Amid criticism of a crackdown on freedom of speech that has intensified as the European Games have approached and the decision to ban journalists from news organisations including the Guardian from reporting on it, Uefa defended its decision to award four games in the continent-wide Euro 2020 competition to Baku.
The matches – three group stage games and a quarter-final – will be played in the new national stadium that was due to host a lavish opening ceremony on Friday night in front of 35 heads of state including the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, before 16 days of competition featuring 6,000 athletes from 50 countries across 20 sports.
Michel Platini, who has unapologetically defended his decision to vote for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, has previously argued that it is better to take sporting events to new parts of the world in the hope that it can spark change. However, Uefa will also ensure that it has control of the accreditation process after several international journalists were refused entry to the Baku 2015 games.
“At Uefa we pride ourselves on having the same standards for all our competitions wherever they may take place,” said Uefa’s chief of press, Pedro Pinto. “For Uefa Euro 2020 we will aim to work the same way in Azerbaijan as we do in the UK or any other host nation when it comes to freedom of press, accreditation and access.”
The 2020 tournament is being held across several European cities, including London, as part of a one-off plan to spread matches across the continent.
“The position of the president is quite clear. He is not in favour of boycotting countries and regimes that have ways of life that clash with what is considered normal in our respective cultures,” said Pinto.
“He actually believes that once these nations are awarded hosting rights, they find themselves in the spotlight and therefore are at the centre of political and social debate which could potentially lead to positive changes.”
Formula One’s supremo, Bernie Ecclestone, has previously said he is “happy” with arrangements for next year’s first Baku Grand Prix. Asked if he had checked out the country’s human rights record he said: “We have. I think everybody seems to be happy. Doesn’t seem to be any big problem there.”
Campaigners, who on Friday protested outside the Azerbaijan embassy in London, said that this week’s events should force Uefa and Formula One to put pressure on the Azerbaijani authorities to ensure that their events do not become similar vehicles for increased oppression.
“The crackdown on human rights in Azerbaijan ahead of the European Games, and then banning journalists and international NGOs from entering, has been a PR disaster for the country and for the European Olympic Committees,” said Amnesty International’s Naomi Westland, who was also barred from entering the country this week.
“That should ring alarm bells for other sports bodies, like Formula One and Uefa, planning to hold events there in the next few years. They should start using their influence now and urge President Aliyev to stop the crackdown, allow a free press and immediately and unconditionally release government critics who have been unfairly imprisoned.”
Pat Hickey, the Irish head of the European Olympic Committees who hosted a lunch for 70 IOC members including the president, Thomas Bach, before the opening ceremony, said on Friday that there was no more it could do to ensure freedom of reporting.
“We are very concerned about journalists … not getting in,” Hickey told Around the Rings. “We have taken it up again and it’s ongoing but to me it appears that they won’t get in. We cannot enforce it. We don’t have the right.”
Hickey said that the EOC had “spoken to everyone we can physically speak to right up to the top”. But he added: “The bottom line is, as I have said months ago, we cannot tell a sovereign state what to do and we cannot say who they let in or who they let out.”
It is understood that several of the refusals of accreditation were because journalists concerned had previously travelled to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory. However, that was not the case with Guardian journalists, where the decision appears to have been linked to an earlier article published in December that detailed Azerbaijan’s ambitious push into world sport and the related clampdown on freedom of speech.
Hickey first suggested to Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, that his country host the Games, envisioned as a counterpoint to the Asian Games or the pan-American Games, in 2012.
The future of the event is uncertain given the decision by the Netherlands to pull out of hosting the 2019 edition, citing cost concerns.
Plans by athletics and swimming, which will not have elite competitors in Baku, to host their own integrated European championships in 2018 also cast doubt over its long-term viability.
The build-up has been overshadowed by intense criticism from human rights groups over a crackdown on critical voices that has involved a succession of investigative journalists, human rights lawyers, campaigners and activists being locked up on what are widely considered to be trumped up charges.
Khadija Ismayilova, a jailed journalist, said in a letter to the New York Times that political prisoners had been targeted “for telling the truth about the situation in my country”.
“Do not let the government of Azerbaijan distract your attention from its record of corruption and abuse. Keep fighting for human rights, for those who are silenced,” she wrote.
Emma Hughes, from campaign group Platform, was also denied entry despite having successfully applied for press accreditation.
“It’s been a bit of a PR own goal for the regime. It just shows they won’t tolerate any criticism whatsoever and proves the point it’s a place where dissent is not allowed. Those kept out of the country are fortunate in comparison to those taking action in Azerbaijan,” said Hughes, who was among those outside the embassy in London, one of a dozen planned protests across Europe.
“We wanted to give a voice to those who are behind bars in Azerbaijan and give a voice to our colleagues who otherwise silent through pressure or have had to flee the country,” said Rebecca Vincent from the Sport for Rights campaign, which was initiated by jailed human rights campaigner Rasul Jafarov.
In London protesters traded chants with a group of Azerbaijani students and ex-pats who said that sport and politics should not mix. “I think that argument has been effectively dismantled in most other industries and it’s not clear to me at all why we should abandon our commitment to human rights for a sporting occasion,” responded Index on Censorship’s chief executive, Jodie Ginsberg.
Bill Sweeney, chief executive of the British Olympic Association, said that the 160 Team GB athletes at the games would be free to speak out against human rights abuses if they chose to. Earlier this year the Guardian revealed that Baku organisers had offered to meet the costs of all 50 competing countries.
However, the EOC’s rules ban “political, religious or racial propaganda in any European Games venue or associated areas during the period of the Games”. Unlike the German and Swedish Olympic Committees the BOA has not so far spoken out on the human rights issue as it relates to the Baku games.The Games are being broadcast live in the UK by BT Sport, but its managing director Delia Bushell defended its decision not to make reference to the clampdown on freedom of speech.
“The Games are going ahead and being broadcast out of Baku. There will be consumers who would like to watch those, and we are simply taking the live feed of those games into the channel,” she told the Guardian. “In the process of doing that, I don’t think that confers any human rights judgment on our side.”
Meanwhile, a teenage synchronized swimmer from Austria who was hit by a shuttle bus at the European Games was being kept in an induced coma in a Vienna hospital after lengthy surgery.
“Vanessa Sahinovic suffered many fractures and more surgery will be necessary,” hospital spokesman Christoph Mierau said, adding the 15-year-old Austrian’s injuries were not life-threatening.
Sahinovic and two teammates – Luna Pajer and Verena Breit – were hit by the shuttle bus while walking in athletes village in Baku on Thursday.