BRUSSELS -- A senior European sports official has defended plans to hold the first-ever European Games in Baku next month amid what rights groups say is a growing crackdown on the media and civil society by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's government.
Speaking at the European Parliament in Brussels on May 6, European Olympic Committees (EOC) Vice-President Janez Kocijancic indicated that the organization will not act on the basis of political concerns, saying the EOC "cannot accept political engagements."
Rights defenders have questioned plans to hold the inaugural European Games on June 12-28 in Azerbaijan, where several journalists, activists, and government critics jailed in the past year are widely considered to be political prisoners targeted in a campaign to silence dissent.
The long-ruling Aliyev is "forging ahead with the most devastating clampdown on human rights in 24 years of post-Soviet independence," said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, at the same panel in the European Parliament.
"He has arrested many of the Azerbaijani human rights advocates and journalists who could have brought scrutiny and transparency to the conduct of these games if they were not in jail," Worden said.
Rasul Cafarov, an activist who was arrested in August after announcing plans for a campaign to draw attention to the rights situation ahead of the European Games, was sentenced to six and a half years in prison last month after a trial on financial crimes charges he says were politically motivated.
Worden said that the EOC, which groups 49 national Olympic Committees in the region, "has the power and the leverage to tell Baku to release prisoners and to stop threatening journalists before the games begin."
Kocijancic said that the organization expects that it will help "democratize every society where we will go" and use "whatever influence we have to make this society better and more open," but that EOC cannot accept responsibility for changing political matters as this is not within the scope of its activity.
He noted that Azerbaijan chaired the Council of Europe for six months last year, and said that the oil-producing Caspian Sea coast nation has increased trade with the European Union "tremendously."