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As I sit detained in Heydar Aliyev international airport Baku is tantalisingly close. The broad surface of Heydar Aliyev Prospekti stretches out in front of me. A year ago to the day I took a taxi along this freeway – catching glimpses of the Baku Olympic Stadium which was under construction. Today the national stadium is just three days away from the opening ceremony of the first European Games.
I was always expecting this visit to be difficult, although I did think I’d at least make it into the country. Since my last trip here the situation in Azerbaijan has rapidly deteriorated. Civil society has been stamped on hard with journalists, academics, lawyers, bloggers and democracy activists all being jailed. Many of the people I met before are now in jail, hiding or have fled the country.
These Games, a subsidary of the Olympics, are being used to goldwash a corrupt regime and the oil company that serves it – BP. The purpose of them is to present the Aliyev family as progressive and open to the world. In reality it has an appalling record of human rights abuse, crushing freedom of speech and assembly, and incarcerating any voices of opposition.
BP is the largest foreign investor in Azerbaijan. Since 1994, when BP became the operator of the biggest oil field in Azerbaijan, the corporation and the Aliyev government have become evermore intertwined. The Aliyevs depend upon BP to maintain the supply of oil revenues into the state and the personal finances of the First Family. The oil wealth brought by BP has entrenched the Aliyev regime and failed to raise living standards for the majority of Azeris. BP in turn is dependent upon the oil production in Azerbaijan and the staunch support of the Aliyevs when the company hits troubles in other oil provinces.
The sixteen days of the Games will be used to showcase Baku to the international community. What neither competing teams, visiting fans nor the media will see is the massive inequality in Azerbaijan and the growing dissent.
While I face many hours in detention for speaking out against BP and the Aliyevs, political prisoners in Azerbaijan face many years in jail. This year alone has seen wave after wave of arrests.
The charismatic young democracy activist Rasul Jafarov, who founded the Sport for Rights campaign, has been sentenced to 6.5 years. Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayil was imprisoned for reveling the how the elite grabbed and squandered the country’s money.
Leyla Yunus, one of the country’s most respected human rights advocates, and her husband, Arif Yunus, were charged with treason – a sentence that could see them spending the rest of their lives in jail. Human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev was arrested a few days after Rasul. Eight months later, in April 2015, he was sentenced to seven and a half years in jail. There are serious concerns about Leyla, Arif’s and Intigam’s health.
After many months in detention, eight activists from the youth movement NIDA! were sentenced to between six and eight years in prison. Opposition politicians such as Ilgar Mammadov were also given long sentences. The election monitor Anar Mammadli was sentenced to five and a half years in prison and the founder of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, Emin Huseynov, was forced into hiding in the Swiss Embassy after being stopped from leaving the country. Emin is still there and has now been charged with tax evasion and abuse of powers, meaning that were he to leave the embassy he would immediately be arrested.
Isa Shahmarly, a former chair of the Free (Azad) LGBT group, hung himself with a rainbow flag in his Baku apartment, writing in a note that Azerbaijan society was “not for me”.
Seymour Hezi, a columnist with the Azadliq newspaper, was attacked at a bus stop. When he tried to defend himself with a bottle he had in his hand, he was arrested by police who appeared to be watching from close by.
Ilgar Nasibov, a journalist who worked ay the Nakhchivan Resource Centre, the only independent rights group in the region, was beaten unconscious and left with multiple broken bones and temporary loss of vision in one eye.
Three weeks after Khadija Ismayil’s arrest, the offices at Radio Free Europe were raided and shut down. Staff were detained for questioning and their computers seized. The station must now operate from outside the country.
Such a list of names, brutalities and injustice. The past year in Azerbaijan has seen a burgeoning movement full of creativity and optimism stamped on hard. Far from presenting a more liberal face as it prepares for the eyes of Europe to be turned in its direction, the regime has been getting ever more repressive as it clamps down on dissent in the run up to the Oil Games. BP carry on regardless remaining resolute in their support for the Games and the Aliyevs.
The democracy movement appears all but destroyed. Yet most of those in prison understood where their politics, journalism, blogging, monitoring, legal work and other activism would lead. This is what makes them remarkable. As Intigam Aliyev said when he was sentenced, “In this country it is a crime to have an alternative opinion, to talk about election fraud and discuss issues of political prisoners. I do not regret my arrest. Even while in prison I plan to continue my work. Through our arrests our struggle continues.”
Emma Hughes is a co-editor at Red Pepper magazine and a campaigner with Platform. She is part of the Sport for Rights campaign, which is working to highlight cases of political prisoners in Azerbaijan in the run-up to the European Games.
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