Kerry Moscogiuri, Director of Supporter Campaigning and Communications at Amnesty International UK, has called on Formula One to use its influence in persuading the Azerbaijani authorities to end their lack of human rights provision in the country, ahead of this weekend’s 2016 European Grand Prix in Baku.
Indeed the race, which is being held to showcase the best that Baku has to offer, is seen by protesters as a glitzy mask to hide the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, which is spiralling out of control. The repression of government critics, including journalists, lawyers, opposition politicians and youth activists, who have been arrested and jailed on false charges needs attention, and although the Azerbaijani authorities have, under pressure, released several prisoners under presidential pardon recently, this should not trick people into believing their attitude is changing.
Among those released were eight prisoners of conscience, including award-winning investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova. However, while the release was widely welcomed internationally, these pardons have neither addressed any of the long-standing human rights concerns in Azerbaijan, nor put an end to the practice of arrests of government critics on fabricated charges.
Baku recently hosted the inaugural European Games in June last year, ahead of which Amnesty reported an unprecedented escalation in repression, and in 2020 the city will hold four games in the European Football Championships. The authorities have also made two attempts to bid for the Olympic Games, and the European Grand Prix is yet another event to allow them to continue with their objective of using sport to promote the country, whilst much of the population suffer.
Speaking ahead of the European Grand Prix, Moscogiuri advised:
“The arrival of Formula One in Baku must not steer attention away from the Azerbaijani authorities’ human rights crackdown. Behind the glitz, the authorities are locking up their critics, have shut down NGOs and arrested or harassed their leaders. The recent release of some of those jailed on trumped-up charges should not fool anyone into thinking that the wind in Baku is blowing in a different direction.
“Azerbaijan has courted big international sports events to improve its image abroad, and the Grand Prix is no different. While the world’s fastest drivers take to the streets of Baku in this spectacle of speed, there are many who won’t be able to enjoy the show. F1 is in pole position to influence positive change in Azerbaijan. We would like to see them publicly urge President Aliyev to end this crackdown and free all prisoners of conscience.”
Amnesty, along with other human rights campaign groups and some journalists were banned from entering the country ahead of the European Games by the Azerbaijani government, and also again prior to the country’s parliamentary elections, in October. There are currently fourteen prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan right now, according to studies by Amnesty International UK and there are believed to be many more besides. Amnesty would like them all releasing and the situation brought under control before the country is allowed to host any further sporting events.
There is a long road ahead to solving the human rights crisis which is rife in Azerbaijan, no one thinks it can be done overnight, but Amnesty believe that Formula One could play an important role in bringing positive change about.