Human rights groups condemn European Olympic Committees for “sportswashing” human rights abuses in Azerbaijan

The coalition also condemns EOC President Patrick Hickey for praising the Azerbaijani leader, Ilham Aliyev.

The Sport for Rights coalition has accused the European Olympic Committees (EOC) of “sportswashing” human rights abuses in Azerbaijan.

In a press release, the NGO coalition condemns the EOC for choosing Azerbaijan, described as “one of the world’s most corrupt countries,” to host the forthcoming first-ever European Games, which the coalition says will be used by the Azerbaijani regime to try to whitewash its deteriorating human rights record, including its widening crackdown on civil society.

The coalition also condemns EOC President Patrick Hickey for praising the Azerbaijani leader, Ilham Aliyev.

In April 2015, Mr. Hickey said: “Baku 2015 will come to life through the dedication and effort of your entire country. It has been an absolute pleasure working with the Azerbaijani leadership. Your professionalism and focus has never failed to impress us.”

The coalition notes that in the year before the June 12-28 European Games in Baku, a number of Azerbaijan’s leading independent journalists and human rights activists, including Leyla Yunus, Rasul Jafarov and Khadija Ismayilova, have been detained on dubious charges including treason, drug offenses and abuse of power.

In particular, Mr. Jafarov, one of the country’s most prominent human rights defenders who was nominated for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought 2014, was arrested in August 2014 and sentenced earlier this year to six and a half years in prison on charges of tax evasion, illegal business activities and abuse of power.

According to the press release, an appeal by Mr. Jafarov, who was to head the Sport for Rights campaign, was initially scheduled to be heard on the day of the European Games opening ceremony, but fearing attention from the international media heading to Baku for the Games, the Azerbaijani authorities have postponed the hearing.

The coalition notes that prominent European politicians representing all major groups in the European Parliament have issued a statement urging Azerbaijan to release all political prisoners unconditionally and calling on the EU Council’s and the European Commission’s officials to boycott the Games unless political prisoners are released.

“The authoritarian regime of Ilham Aliyev is using the games to present an image of itself as a progressive nation, but in reality Azerbaijan is a country where dissenting journalists and activists are brutally repressed, while the president and his cronies engage in corruption and embezzlement with impunity,” the Sport for Rights coalition says.

The coalition points to Mr. Hickey as the one who pushed through plans to hold the inaugural European Games in Azerbaijan.

According to Andrew Jennings, a journalist who uncovered corruption at FIFA, Belarus was Mr. Hickey’s first choice for the European Games. The journalist says: “Hickey gets cozy with people many of us wouldn’t invite home to meet our loved ones. Seeking a wealthy patron in Europe to pay for a regional Olympics to mirror the PanAmerican Games and not finding any takers among reputable leaders, Hickey turned to the president of the National Olympic Committee of Belarus, whose day job is being Europe’s last dictator. Ignoring Belarus’ unenviable doping record, [in 2008] Hickey presented the thuggish Alyaksandr Lukashenka with a plaque commending his ‘Outstanding Contribution to the Olympic Movement.’ But Lukashenka is broke, so Hickey pursued the oil-rich president of the Azerbaijan Olympic Committee, another head of state. A noted kleptomaniac and jailer of reporters, Ilham Aliyev has reportedly offered millions to fund the event in 2015.”

On June 8, the Belarusian leader awarded Mr. Hickey the Francisak Skaryna Medal in recognition of his “considerable personal contribution to the development of Belarus’ Olympic movement, amateur and professional sports.”

The Sport for Rights coalition comprises the Ukrainian-based Center for Civil Liberties, the Polish-based Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, the British-based Index on Censorship, the Belgian-based International Partnership for Human Rights, the Netherlands Helsinki Committee, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Czech-based People in Need, British-based Platform, the Polish-based Youaid Foundation, and a group of civil society activists from Azerbaijan who wish to remain anonymous out of concern for the security of their family members.