Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, hosts its first Formula 1 Grand Prix from 17-19 June.
But while the cars race around the city-centre track, and stars including Pharrell Williams entertain the crowds, dozens of political prisoners languish in Azerbaijan’s jails.
Azerbaijan is one of the least free countries on earth, as widely documented by Sport for Rights coalition members. In its World Report 2016, Human Rights Watch stated: “The government’s unrelenting crackdown decimated independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media. Courts sentenced leading human rights defenders, political activists, and journalists to long prison terms in politically motivated, unfair trials. Dozens more face harassment, have been imprisoned, are under criminal investigation, face travel bans, or have fled”. Reporters Without Borders’ 2016 World Press Freedom Index ranked Azerbaijan 163rd out of 180 countries, stating “Not content with crushing all forms of pluralism, President Ilham Aliyev has been waging a relentless war against his remaining critics since 2014”.
Azerbaijan’s ruling Aliyev regime is determined to silence dissent in the country: critics such as opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov, journalist Seymur Hezi, and youth activist Ilkin Rustemzade have been convicted and imprisoned on false charges, along with dozens of others.
Meanwhile, the Aliyev regime spends millions trying to enhance its reputation abroad. The European Grand Prix follows 2015’s European Games, also hosted in Baku, in the Aliyev’s “sportswashing” programme – its attempt to use prestigious sporting events to gloss over Azerbaijan’s human rights record. The state oil company Socar is a partner of Uefa and a major sponsor of Euro 2016, and Baku will host matches in the 2020 European Championship.
This “sportswashing” is just part of a campaign that stretches from buying exclusive restaurants to publishing glossy magazines, promoting a modern, glamourous image of Azerbaijan and distracting attention from the human rights crackdown taking place at home.
Sport for Rights recently toured London highlighting the reach of Azerbaijan’s rulers across politics, PR, sport and fashion. Watch the video below to find out more.