SHAFAQNA -Â Just over a mile from the gleaming white facade of Baku’s new Olympic Stadium, an oil refinery tower lights up the sky. Its flame fits neatly with Azerbaijan’s marketing line to would-be tourists â€” “the land of fire” â€” but it’s also a powerful reminder of the oil wealth that made it possible to build the 68,000-seat arena.
From Friday, Azerbaijan hosts the inaugural European Games, a 20-sport event designed to put the former Soviet country on the map â€” and perhaps prepare Baku to host the Olympics in the future â€” but which has dredged up unwanted scrutiny.
Azerbaijan is one of a new generation of controversial players on the world sports stage, resource-rich but with shoddy human rights records and comparatively little sporting history. There’s also Qatar, host of the 2022 soccer World Cup and under fire over corruption allegations and the deaths of migrant workers, and the oil-rich Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, a finalist in bidding for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Hosting the European Games has a particular significance for majority-Muslim Azerbaijan, which has long sought to present itself as a European rather than Asian nation, a strategy long followed by neighboring Turkey.
“Azerbaijan is a very young country,” said Simon Clegg, the former British Olympic Association chief who has led Baku’s preparations, speaking with The Associated Press in one of Baku’s trio of Flame Tower skyscrapers, another product of the country’s oil wealth.
“The European Games will allow Azerbaijan to showcase itself to the international community and the whole world as an exciting and dynamic country that is a very secular society.”
Friday’s opening ceremony will be attended by world leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Among people who will not be there is Khadija Ismayilova, a journalist who was imprisoned last year after investigating corruption allegedly involving the president, in what opposition activists says is a wider crackdown on dissent ahead of the Games.
“Civil society pretty much is eradicated in Azerbaijan and there are no independent voices left … The last two years, we saw increased repression,” said Levan Asatiani, a researcher covering Azerbaijan for Amnesty International. “The government could well be creating a criticism-free zone ahead of the European Games.”
Security forces routinely resort to torture, according to Asatiani. “Authorities are planting drugs on activists and then they try to pursue a prosecution,” he said. “Most of the activists who are now in prison on drug-related charges say that they have been ill-treated during interrogation and some of them signed confession letters under torture.”
Ismayilova, the jailed journalist, has been convicted of libel and accused of tax evasion and inciting a colleague to commit suicide. “The subject of her investigation was corruption among high ranking officials and she was arrested because of that,” her lawyer, Fariz Namazli, told The AP.
Foreign human rights activists have faced obstructions covering the games. Amnesty International planned to send a delegation to Azerbaijan during the Games, but pulled out Tuesday, saying the government had told it that the group would not be allowed in.
Emma Hughes – a British journalist and human rights activist critical of the Azerbaijani government â€” was denied entry Tuesday and detained overnight at Baku’s main airport despite possessing media accreditation for the games, her colleague Mika Minio-Paluello told AP by telephone.