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What reporters covering the F1 Grand Prix in Azerbaijan should know

Article 19

This statement was originally published on article19.org on 9 June 2016.

ARTICLE 19 and Sport for Rights have launched a press briefing about the upcoming Formula 1 Grand Prix, which will be held in Baku in June 2016.

INTRODUCTION

On 17–19 June 2016, Azerbaijan's capital city Baku will host the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Europe. Attracting global attention, the race provides an opportunity for journalists covering it to increase awareness of the dire human rights situation in Azerbaijan and highlight the need for reform.

This is the first time that Azerbaijan will hold the F1 Grand Prix; however, this oil and gas-rich state has previously played host to other flagship sport and cultural events, including the inaugural European Olympic Games in 2015 and the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012.

These events form part of an elaborate public relations campaign waged by the Azerbaijani government, seeking to portray itself as a democratic country – and a good prospect for foreign investment. Accompanied by a policy of wooing European parliamentarians and officials, President Ilham Aliyev's autocratic regime hopes to use such events to hide the country's appalling human rights record and divert attention from its ongoing crackdown against civil society and independent media.

Since the Arab Spring in 2011, which awakened fears of uprisings at home, there has been a significant deterioration in the human rights situation in the country. In 2014, the Azerbaijani government, renowned for its corruption, launched a renewed assault on fundamental freedoms, seeking to silence all critical voices within the country. To this end, the government has:

- Imprisoned human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers, activists and opposition politicians on false charges, forcing remaining critical or oppositional voices to either cease operations or go into exile.
- Cut off all financial resources available to civil society – in addition to freezing the bank accounts of NGOs and their leaders, the authorities have instigated spurious criminal investigations into the activities of a number of independent NGOs, and implicated foreign donors, forcing them to cease financial support to independent civil society.
- Adopted restrictive legislation and regulations governing the activities of civil society, enabling the government to exert significant control over NGOs, and effectively prevent independent civil society from legally operating within the country.
- Harassed and intimidated independent media outlets, operating both in Azerbaijan and from abroad, leading to the closure of all but a handful of critical outlets.
- Allowed a climate of impunity for violence against journalists, with no justice for attacks against journalists, including the murder or death in custody of four journalists since 2005.

Having long turned a blind eye to Azerbaijan's flagrant violations of its human rights commitments, the international community is beginning to take more serious action to address the situation. At the same time, Azerbaijan's economy, one of the most oil-dependent in Eurasia, has taken a major hit from falling global oil prices. Facing an increased need for foreign investment, this has prompted the government to take some positive, but limited steps to improve the situation.

In March 2016, the authorities released sixteen individuals who had been imprisoned on politically motivated charges. However, while the release of political prisoners is welcome, the verdicts have not been quashed and legislation increasing the vulnerability of civil society to such charges remains in place. Moreover, many other individuals remain falsely imprisoned and following the releases, the authorities have detained and brought new charges against their critics.

The release of the prisoners does not demonstrate commitment by the Azerbaijani authorities to abandon its campaign of intimidation and harassment against government critics. Facing severe economic challenges, the Azerbaijan authorities released the prisoners in an effort to whitewash the regime's human rights abuses, without committing to systemic and lasting change. The Grand Prix provides a chance to increase awareness of the dire human rights situation in Azerbaijan, and ensure that international pressure is maintained on the government to meaningfully improve its human rights record, rather than rewarding it for token improvements that can easily be reversed.

Read the full briefing here.

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