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Amnesty: don’t let Azerbaijan hide human rights abuses behind football

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Thursday, 23 May, 2019, 12:40
Amnesty: don’t let Azerbaijan hide human rights abuses behind football

Amnesty International has increased the pressure on European football’s governing body, Uefa, by saying Azerbaijan must not be allowed to “sportswash its appalling human rights record” by staging high-profile football matches.

Baku’s Olympic Stadium is hosting the Europa League final between Arsenal and Chelsea next Wednesday and is also the venue for four games in next year’s European Championship.

But the decision to stage the Europa League showpiece in the former Soviet republic has been strongly criticised by fans and human rights groups and, on Tuesday, the Arsenal midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan said he would not travel to the game amid fears for his safety in a country that is locked in a simmering conflict with his native Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

“We must ensure that Azerbaijan isn’t allowed to sportswash its appalling human rights record as a result of the football fanfare,” Amnesty International’s UK director, Kate Allen, said. “Azerbaijan is in the grip of a sinister human rights crackdown, with journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders being ruthlessly targeted. Unfair trials and smear campaigns remain commonplace.

“LGBTI people have been arrested, and even people fleeing the country have been harassed and pressured to return. Fans, players and backroom staff can help prevent Azerbaijan’s likely attempt to sportswash its image by informing themselves about the human rights situation behind the glitzy facade of Wednesday’s match.

“All too often, governments are using high-profile sporting competitions to distract attention from repressive policies and human rights violations, to instead project an image of openness. This couldn’t be further from the truth with the current administration, and the Arsenal-Chelsea clash is just the latest reminder of this.”

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According to Azerbaijani human rights defenders, more than 150 people are in prison in the country on politically motivated charges, while mass arrests are used to silence the media and crack down on non-governmental organisations. The country, which has been run by the president, Ilham Aliyev, since 2003, is ranked 166th on the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, the lowest ranking in Europe.

So far, however, most of the criticism of Uefa’s choice of Baku for the final has focused on how difficult and expensive it is for Arsenal and Chelsea fans to get there, as well as the large proportion of tickets that have been allocated to local fans and sponsors.

Uefa has pointed out it has an obligation to grow the game throughout the continent and there was no way of knowing that two London-based sides would reach the final when the decision was made in 2017. It has also said the ticket allocation was based on how many travelling fans it believed Baku’s airport could handle. The Azerbaijan Football Association has said it regrets Mkhitaryan’s “unwarranted” decision to stay away.