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article imageRights groups slam 'repressive' Azerbaijan ahead of European games

By AFP     Mar 4, 2015 in World

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on Wednesday condemned the persecution of dissidents in Azerbaijan as the country prepares to host the first European Games, urging the release of imprisoned journalists and activists.

The watchdogs criticised efforts by the oil-rich ex-Soviet nation to present a squeaky-clean image to the international community ahead of the Games in June, while it was guilty of what they said were human rights violations by strongman President Ilham Aliyev's government.

Amnesty released a 30-page report entitled "Guilty of Defending Rights: Azerbaijan's human rights defenders and activists behind bars", 100 days before the start of the first continent-wide sporting event organised by the European Olympic Committees.

"The current levels of repression of the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly mark the nadir of the country's human rights record since independence," said the report.

It called on the government to make good on its commitments "and take immediate steps to safeguard human rights".

The report "paints a grim picture of today's Azerbaijan where civil society is being effectively disabled by arrests of political opponents, critical journalists, and rights activists," Amnesty's South Caucasus researcher Natalia Nozadze told AFP.

Human Rights Watch urged European leaders not to send high-level delegations to the opening ceremony of the Games, which are to take place every four years, unless a crackdown on dissent ends.

HRW said that in the past year, authorities had "used a range of bogus criminal charges" to arrest or imprison at least 35 human rights defenders, political and civil activists, journalists, and bloggers, prompting dozens to flee the country or go into hiding.

"If the European Games are to show that sport can leave a positive legacy, then every journalist and activist detained on politically motivated charges in Azerbaijan should be released well before the opening ceremony," said the organisation's Jane Buchanan.

The country was similarly rapped over the knuckles for rights abuses when it was chosen to host the Eurovision song contest in 2012, with apparently little effect.

Aliyev, 53, has been accused by rights groups of stepping up a campaign to stifle dissent since his election for a third term in 2013.

The president came to power in 2003 following an election seen as flawed by international observers.

He took over after the death of his father Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB officer and communist-era leader who had ruled newly independent Azerbaijan with an iron fist since 1993.

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