12/06/2015 13:35 BST | Updated 12/06/2016 06:59 BST

No 'Olympic Truce' for Journalists and Human Rights Defenders in Baku: Barred From Entry and Deported on the Eve of the First European Games

After sending renowned Azerbaijani human rights activists and journalists to prison, the country's authorities have decided to ban foreign journalists and rights groups from the European Games. This latest move highlights the lengths to which Azerbaijan will go to prevent people from seeing what's really going on within its borders.

On Tuesday 9 June, a British human rights activist accredited to cover the Games was detained at Baku airport before being deported. Emma Hugues - whose organisation Platform strongly criticised the regime of President Ilham Aliyev for violating freedom of expression and association - had her passport confiscated, was told she was on a "red list" and put on plane back to London.

The following day, a delegation from Amnesty was informed they were not welcome in the country, as they were due to travel to Baku to launch a report exposing the repression that took place ahead of the Games.

"There has been an intense crackdown on human rights ahead of the European Games," said Naomi Westland who works on issues around sports and human rights at Amnesty. "This proves the Azerbaijani authorities want to create a criticism free zone while the world's media is in attendance. The games are a massive PR exercise to present Azerbaijan as a modern, dynamic, progressive state. Behind the scenes, the reverse is the case."

Journalists from the BBC and the Guardian, including the Guardian's chief sports correspondent Owen Gibson, have also joined the list of persona non grata in Baku.

Azerbaijan is already breaking records... of human rights violations!

Human rights violations tarnishing big sporting events is nothing new. Already in 2008, many criticised the choice of Beijing as host-city for the Olympic Games, denouncing widespread censorship and human rights abuses perpetrated by the Chinese authorities. More recently, the controversy targeted Russia as Sochi was hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Azerbaijan has not been spared criticism - both at home and abroad - for its systematic repression of critical voices. In the past 12 months, Baku 2015 preparations were accompanied by a wave of arrests of independent journalists, human rights lawyers and democracy activists. Charges against them have included tax evasion, drug trafficking and even "spying for a foreign country". As President Aliyev lights the Olympic Torch in Baku, dozens of journalists and activists will not see the Games, jailed for speaking out or forced into hiding and exile.

Award-winning journalist Khadija Islayimova - renowned for her investigative work exposing corruption and her fierce defence of freedom of expression - was arrested last December, accused of "incitement to suicide". She was later charged with embezzlement, illegal business, tax evasion and abuse of authority.

Those same charges have been used to sentence pro-democracy campaigner Rasul Jafarov to 6.5 years in jail. His appeal trial, supposed to start the same day of the opening ceremony, has been postponed.

The Games as a "facade" to cover up censorship

The unprecedented crackdown against civil society in Azerbaijan explains why the country is ranked fifth on the Committee to Protect Journalists' list of the 10 most censored countries, just behind Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia. Besides sending critics to jail, the Azerbaijani authorities have raided and shut down the premisses of local press freedom associations and independent news outlets. Free speech organisation Index on Censorship also denounced the judicial harassment and financial squeeze of opposition daily Azadliq, forced to suspend publication in July - just months after being award the Guardian/Index Freedom of Expression Award for journalism.

Meanwhile, President Aliyev insists Azerbaijan respects all freedoms and that there are no political prisoners. With the European Games - costing an estimated £6.5billion - he hopes people will look in another direction. But it is difficult to ignore the correlation between Azerbaijan's efforts to polish its image and the persecution of journalists and activists who speak truth to power.

Organisations participating in the Sport for Rights campaign wish to shine a light on Azerbaijan's dismal human rights records, and remind the world that outside the stadium, people are struggling for their rights.