BAKU, Azerbaijan, June 12 (UPI) -- Azerbaijan, a country noted for oil money, a poor human rights record and autocratic government, will host the inaugural European Games, a $7.3 billion project which opens Friday.
Its capital city, Baku, will be the site of an Olympics-style event in which about 6,000 athletes from about 50 countries, all flown in at Azerbaijani expense, will compete in 20 sports. Among those specifically banned are numerous members of the press and representatives of rights organizations Platform and Amnesty International. Baku, where President Ilham Aliyev came to power in 2003 in an election commonly regarded as fraudulent, wields immense power over a former Soviet republic sandwiched between Russia and Iran, the size of Minnesota but the 21st in the world in oil production, was the only city to bid on the Games.
Britain will send 160 athletes to the games, but British newspaper reporter Owen Gibson, who reported on Azerbaijan's "vicious crackdown on freedom of expression (which) has led to more than 90 arrests on what human rights groups consider to be trumped-up charges" and harassment of journalists, was among those denied entry.
"Azerbaijan wants to have these games in a criticism-free zone. It has already wiped out everybody who is critical of the government inside the country, and now it's a closed-down state for international human rights groups as well," Levan Asastiani of Amnesty International told USA Today.
Emma Hughes of Platform, a London-based human rights organization, has been critical of the involvement of the multinational oil company BP and its involvement with the Azerbaijani government. She was deported and had her press credentials withdrawn after being held overnight in Baku.
"I'm being detained on the orders of the BP-Aliyev regime. I may get deported, but over 100 political prisoners in Azerbaijan face years in jail until the oil-funded regime falls. Civil society has been stamped on hard in Baku. Journalists, lawyers, academics, writers and activists have all found themselves behind bars. And yet the Oil Games carry on regardless. The future of this country is imprisoned, yet BP still work hand in hand with this regime," Hughes told publishing group Index on Censorship during her detention.
Azerbaijan's involvement in the European Games can be seen as a bellwether for international sport. Autocratic and moneyed regimes are the only governments eager to bid on expensive, profile-raising sporting events; only Beijing and Kazakhstan, another former Soviet republic with a robust oil industry and a repressive government, seek the 2022 Winter Olympics.