Azerbaijan criticized over rights as European Games begin
BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) 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 - ''the land of fire'' - 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 - and perhaps prepare Baku to host the Olympics in the future - 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 - 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.
Border guards told Hughes she was ''on a red list'' but would not explain why she was barred from entering the country, Minio-Paluello said. Hughes, who had planned to attend an appeal hearing for a jailed opposition leader in Baku, was held under guard and told she would be kept at the airport until Thursday but ''argued quite forcefully'' and was eventually put on a flight to Turkey on Wednesday morning, Minio-Paluello said.
On Thursday, British newspaper The Guardian said its sportswriter Owen Gibson had been refused entry to cover the games after criticizing the Azerbaijani government. The government, European Olympic Committees and games organizers all said they would investigate the case, which EOC president Patrick Hickey called ''a matter of concern.''
Azerbaijan is sensitive to criticism of its rights record. Ali Hasanov, an adviser to President Ilham Aliyev, said Thursday that an organized campaign was under way to slander the country, led by lobbyists for Azerbaijan's traditional rival Armenia, ''an anti-Azerbaijan London (media) platform,'' along with French and German TV networks.
Azerbaijan's enemies abroad ''have a jealous attitude to Azerbaijan being able to organize the first European Games at a high level and are trying to prove that small countries can't implement these kinds of projects,'' Hasanov said.
Hickey, the EOC head, said Thursday that he had raised the issue of human rights with the Azerbaijani government ''behind the scenes.'' But ''we cannot dictate to a sovereign state as to how they run their affairs,'' he said.
Hickey deflected questions about the barring of Amnesty International: ''To all intents and purposes, Amnesty International is a political organization, so questions on that matter should be left to the government of Azerbaijan to answer,'' he said.
Oil is the lifeblood of Azerbaijan, but sometimes mars the landscape. Oil rigs dot the skyline when looking out over the Caspian Sea from Baku, while the site of the Olympic Stadium was once a lake heavily polluted by Soviet-era oil and chemicals spillages.
While the country's energy wealth made it possible to clean up the lake, resources are not limitless. A steep plunge in the price of oil, which makes up almost all of Azerbaijan's exports, has put pressure on government finances.
The budget for the games officially totals just over 1 billion manats ($915 million), with much of that sum spent on the Olympic Stadium, Sports Minister Azad Rahimov said Thursday, adding that it had increased after the currency was recently devalued. The true figure may be higher when related infrastructure such as new roads is taken into account, or the games' prominent sponsorship by the state oil company.
As foreigners pour into Baku, authorities are trying to block poor Azerbaijanis from sight to hide the ''huge contrast between rich and poor,'' said Human Rights Watch researcher Giorgi Gogia. A large fence along the airport road hides poor neighborhoods from view and is nicknamed ''the belt of happiness,'' said Gogia. He is based in neighboring Georgia and was deported from Azerbaijan in March after trying to attend an activist's court hearing.
The games are taking place amid heavy security, with dozens of police and camouflage-clad paramilitary Internal Troops stationed outside the accommodation for athletes and media representatives. While attacks are relatively rare, Islamist terrorism has long been a security threat in Azerbaijan.
However, one of Azerbaijan's problems has proved more tractable ahead of the games: the long-running conflict between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. A delegation from Armenia will compete at the games in a rare sign of goodwill between the two countries.
''The Olympic spirit triumphs again,'' Hickey said.
AP correspondent Sophiko Megrelidze in Tbilisi, Georgia, contributed to this report