Olympic Corruption

How Much Corruption Can One Game Hide?

The oil-rich Caspian nation is using the European Games to hide a spate of nasty human rights abuses

06.12.15 9:15 AM ET

The international Olympic movement claims to cherish, above all, the “educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” So what’s the educational value of the European Olympic Committees renting their principles to President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, host of the inaugural European Games, opening in Baku on June 12th?

Far from being a “good example,” it shows nothing but disrespect for its “fundamental ethical principles.” When you see footage of the Games’ grandiose opening ceremony, designed by Greek artist Dimitris Papaioannou, remember that a very different kind of fantastical performance has been taking place in courtrooms in Azerbaijan, where eight journalists, five human rights defenders, and dozens of other political prisoners have been convicted on trumped-up charges.

Take, for example, the case of human rights defender Rasul Jafarov, who is currently serving a six-and-a-half-year prison sentence on politically motivated charges of tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, and abuse of power. Rasul was arrested in August 2014 after announcing the launch of the Sport for Rights campaign. Fittingly, his appellate hearing was originally scheduled for the same day as the opening ceremony, but was recently postponed until after the Games.

Rasul, nominated for the European Parliament’s 2014 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, is paying the price for dissenting with Aliyev’s fantastical vision. The equally fantastical corruption charges against him come from a top performer in the global corruption games.

According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Azerbaijan ranks as 126th out of 175 for transparency, scoring just 29 on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (clean).

Designed to “sportswash” the appalling human rights record of the Azeri government, Aliyev has thrown a fortune at his Games, an estimated $6.5 billion dollars of mainly oil revenue and international sponsors ranging from Coca Cola to Proctor & Gamble.

While pre-empting protest by targeting Azerbaijan’s leading independent journalists and human rights activists, the regime has built multi-million venues and is paying for all travel and accommodation for visiting teams.

The sports industry’s commercial complicity with Azerbaijan’s whitewash job also extends to the Formula One European Grand Prix in 2016 and hosting matches for the 2020 European soccer championships.

“Sport isn’t above human rights,” says Gulnara Akhundova, an Azerbaijani activist in exile. “This is another indictment of the morals of international sport.”

Prominent politicians from across the European Parliament have issued a statement calling for Azerbaijan to release all political prisoners unconditionally, and for EU Council and Commission officials to boycott the games unless political prisoners are released.

A boycott is not on the cards, but human rights activists hope that the global spotlight will at least shed a little light on the plight of Rasul and his many friends and colleagues, such as Leyla Yunus, Khadija Ismayilova (recently awarded PEN American Center’s Freedom To Write Award) and others on Baku’s long roster of prisoners of conscience.

The European Games were instituted by the European Olympic Committees in 2012 and count as qualifiers for the Olympic games. They include a number of non-Olympic sports with “sponsor potential” such as beach soccer.

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Sport for Rights, an international coalition of human rights and free expression groups, has condemned Patrick Hickey, the Irish president of the European Olympic Committees, for his effusive praise for the Azerbaijani regime and its willingness to pick up the tab for his inaugural Games.

“It has been an absolute pleasure working with the Azerbaijani leadership,” Hickey said in Baku in April. “Your professionalism and focus has never failed to impress us.”

The regime’s focus is not in doubt, especially when directed against Azerbaijan’s peaceful dissidents. Journalists are especially abused.

Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova was jailed in 2014 on similar charges as Rasul. She had reported the ruling family’s links to corruption in telecoms deals that may have drained $1 billion from the public purse.

Among the official sponsors of this month’s games are BP and Azerbaijan’s state oil company SOCAR, whose employees brutally beat journalist Idrak Abbasov while filming forced demolitions by the company in 2012, just weeks after he had accepted an award presented by the Guardian newspaper and free speech-promoting magazine Index on Censorship a ceremony in London.

Seymur Hezi, presenter of the Azerbaijan Hour satellite TV program is serving a five-year prison sentence on spurious hooliganism charges. Hilal Mammadov, editor-in-chief of Tolishi Sedo newspaper, has been jailed on charges of drug possession, treason, and inciting hatred. Rauf Mirkadirov, Zerkalo newspaper columnist, is detained on treason charges, awaiting trial. There are many other similar cases on the books of human rights monitors in Europe.

Jailed human rights defenders include Intigam Aliyev, human rights lawyer and Anar Mammadli, chairman of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre. Emin Huseynov – Director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, is trapped at the Swiss Embassy in Baku unable to leave for fear of unjust arrest along with the others.

Corruption is a family business in Baku.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), cites "well-documented evidence" that "the Aliyev family has been systematically grabbing shares of the most profitable businesses" in Azerbaijan for years.

The OCCRP has launched the “Khadija project,, following up and publishing stories that Ismayilova has been unable to pursue due to her incarceration.

The reports cover secret ownership stakes in banks, construction firms, gold mines, and telecommunications firms, Paul Radu, OCCRP's executive director, says the group has identified hidden companies that were owned by the first family of Azerbaijan in Panama, for instance, or in the Czech Republic, and then identified assets that they owned back in Azerbaijan via these companies.

The project has already uncovered a dubious telecoms deal involving Swedish-Finnish firm TeliaSonera that may have cost the Azerbaijani coffers up to $1 billion, with money going to a variety of firms linked to the Aliyev family and their cronies. Lars Hammer, a veteran Swedish financial crime investigator, said of the deal: “It smells of corruption and bribery. No one could have dreamed that figures like this would have been paid or transferred.”

Back in 2009, a Baku-based US diplomat described Azerbaijan as a “mafia” state.

In a secret cable to Washington later posted to Wikileaks, he compared the Aliyev family regime to the Corleone family in the Godfather films. In great detail the unnamed US diplomat described President Ilham Aliyev as “Michael (Corleone) on the outside, Sonny on the inside.”

Like all gangsters eventually, the Caspian Sea Corleones want to present themselves as legitimate businessmen. But as with all gangsters, intimidations is the only way they know to deal with dissent.

Aliyev will make the most of the games: on May 15th he tweeted “The fact that we will host the first European Games is a manifestation of the great confidence placed in us”. And he’s right. But it’s a vote of confidence that further compromises the already embarrassed world of international sports administration, the global network of blazers and limousines and ostentatious “gifts” that has somehow taken over the world’s favorite pastimes.

The European Games and the other sports extravaganzas that will follow it to Azerbaijan are offers that the world’s sports head honchos could have refused. They gleefully accepted.