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European Games Open In Azerbaijan Amid Rights Concerns

Fireworks explode during the lavish opening ceremony for the 2015 European Games at the Baku Olympic Stadium in Azerbaijan.
Fireworks explode during the lavish opening ceremony for the 2015 European Games at the Baku Olympic Stadium in Azerbaijan.

The inaugural European Games have opened in Azerbaijan in a lavish ceremony amid criticism of the country's poor record on human rights.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev opened the games on June 12 in front of some 68,000 spectators -- including Russian President Vladimir Putin -- and nearly 6,000 athletes packed into Baku's new Olympic Stadium.

The opening ceremony included a rude reception for the Armenian delegation, which was booed by the crowd, and a performance by pop star Lady Gaga singing Imagine, a John Lennon song about world peace.

The quasi-Olympic games for Europe opened with international rights groups and media outlets criticizing the Azerbaijani government for its crackdown on dissent and its jailing of dozens of opposition activists, lawyers, and journalists.

"Government repression is making the European Games historic for all the wrong reasons," said Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch's (HRW) deputy director for Europe and Central Asia.

HRW said the European Games are taking place in "an atmosphere of government repression unprecedented in the post-Soviet era."

Several foreign journalists and activists have been barred from attending the games.

The Azerbaijani government claims there is a media crusade to "discredit" the games, saying The Guardian newspaper and BBC are part of the alleged campaign.

Azerbaijan's most prominent investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, said the country is in the "midst of a human rights crisis" as the European Games begin.

In a letter written from prison and published on June 12 in The New York Times, Ismayilova, a contributor to RFE/RL, urged the international community not to let the Azerbaijani government "distract" its attention from the rights abuses in the country.

An accident on June 11 in which three Austrian synchronized swimmers were injured after being struck by a bus in the athletes' village had put a cloud over the opening ceremony.

"The colorful festivities in Baku must not blind anyone to the Azerbaijani government’s terrible and worsening human rights record," said Chris Smith, chairman of the Helsinki Commission and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Noting that "the eyes of Europe will be on Baku" for the next 17 days, he said, "It is sad that the European Olympic Committees do not require that a potential host government take human rights seriously."

Smith added that "last month’s closure of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty bureau in Baku was the culmination of a monthslong campaign to silence one of the last free media sources in the country."

With reporting by dpa, Reuters, and AFP

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