23/03/2015 13:42 GMT | Updated 23/05/2015 06:59 BST

Azerbaijan, the Russian Linesman and Other Dodgy Sporting Decisions

The glitz and glamour of a major sports event are all very well, but not when they are used as an attempt to launder a tarnished image to the world. Amnesty is calling for all Azerbaijan's prisoners of conscience to be released immediately and unconditionally.

Tofiq Bahramov's statue outside the national stadium in Baku ©NaomiWestland/Amnesty International

Cast in bronze outside the national football stadium that bears his name in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, Tofiq Bahramov's statue stands with one arm bent across his chest and the other outstretched to the side, forever signalling for a free kick.

Better known to football fans as the Russian linesman from the 1966 World Cup final, from Wembley's sidelines Bahramov flagged for England's controversial third goal against West Germany. In doing so, he helped propel Bobby Moore's team to a 4-2 victory and England's first - and to date only - World Cup win.

Less well known is the fact that he wasn't actually Russian, but Azeri, and remains Azerbaijan's most famous sporting export. But he is facing stiff competition for this honour.

In just over three months' time Baku will host the first ever European Games: a two-week, $8 billion-dollar sporting extravaganza overseen by the European Olympic Committee. The city will play host to 6,000 athletes from 50 countries  -  whose expenses are all being paid for by the Games organisers  -  to compete in 20 sports.

And that's not all. Next year, Bernie Ecclestone will take Formula 1 to the boulevards of Baku. The city will host four games in the European Football Championships in 2020. The government has made no secret of the fact it wants an Olympic Games  -  after failed bids for the event in 2016 and 2020, its sights may now be set on 2024.

Almost every time Atlético de Madrid have taken to the pitch in the last three seasons, they have done so with the words 'Azerbaijan: Land of Fire' emblazoned across their shirts. More recently that slogan has changed to 'Baku 2015', although the sponsorship contract is reported to be coming to and end this year.

Meanwhile, in September last year, Manchester United announced that the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan had become its 'only Official Football Federation and Football Development Partner' to help 'develop grass roots football in the country'.

Bahramov looks set to become a mere footnote in the country´s sporting history, but his raised flag back in 1966 is not the only controversial sporting decision to come out of Azerbaijan. President Ilham Aliyev and his government's relentless investment in international sport is happening against a backdrop of repression which has entered its most intense and chilling period since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union 24 years ago.

Gymnasts and pomegranates: The Games are coming

A taxi advertising the European Games, to take place in Baku in June ©Naomi Westland/Amnesty International

When you exit Baku airport through the futuristic glass terminal building, you are met by a line of purple London taxis bearing the colourful art nouveau-inspired gymnast-and-pomegranate motif of the European Games.

Talk to a driver and he (it is unlikely to be a woman) will welcome you into his cab and whisk you along a modern motorway, past the 64,000-seater Olympic stadium still under construction, past the sand-coloured tower blocks of the athletes' village huddled together by the side of the road, past the new gymnastics centre, past smart facades being tacked onto dilapidated Soviet-era buildings and walls that hide from view the crumbling shanty towns of Baku's outskirts, and into the centre of town.

The new Olympic stadium in Baku, still under construction ©Naomi Westland/Amnesty International

There, the iconic curved glass Flame Towers fight for space on a skyline dotted with cranes as the unremitting construction race that has turned the city centre into a hybrid of Soviet, European and Gulf-like town planning continues apace. With a building site around every corner, one minute you could be in Moscow, the next Barcelona, the next Dubai.

Baku's Flame Towers ©Naomi Westland/Amnesty International

Designer shops and Western high street brands line up next to traditional tea houses and carpet shops. Giant billboards bearing the image of former president Heydar Aliyev, who handed over power to his son in 2003, are everywhere. There have been elections, most recently in 2013, which were widely denounced as rigged. Opposition parties are considered to have no real chance of gaining power.

Flashing outdoor TV screens promoting the Games occupy prime roadside advertising spots and clocks counting down the days to the opening ceremony on 12 June decorate busy roundabouts, but talk to ordinary people in Baku and you won't hear many positive noises about the event.

At the end of last month, the Azerbaijani Manat was devalued by a third against the dollar; an average Azeri monthly salary is just $400. Add the falling price of oil and there's not much public support for the decision to cover the costs of all countries participating in the European Games - many of which are easily able to pay their own way. Particular scorn is directed at the inclusion of Armenia in the list, a country with which Azerbaijan is still technically at war.

Building for the European Games, Baku ©Naomi Westland/Amnesty International

There is anger too about an alleged shadow tax  - a system that exists alongside the official tax regime in which businesses are required to pay a percentage of their turnover off the books or face a heavy fine. This percentage has reportedly increased over the last few months in an attempt, many believe, to help the government meet the cost of the Games. Monthly student bursaries have reportedly been stopped, this money also thought to have been redirected to the Games budget.

President Aliyev wants to use the European Games and the international media attention they will bring to show the world Azerbaijan is a modern and dynamic country, sophisticated enough to pull off a complex international sports event.

Last June, as if to prove it, he announced that freedom of expression, association and assembly are all honoured in Azerbaijan. However, the plight of human rights activists, journalists, bloggers and opposition members who have dared to criticise the government shows a very different reality, in which their lives, particularly in the last 12 months, have been blighted by intimidation, arbitrary arrest and politically-motivated criminal charges.

The victims of repression

At least 20 prisoners of conscience are currently behind bars in Azerbaijan awaiting trial following trumped-up charges, ranging from fraud and embezzlement to abuse of drugs and even treason.

The journalist

Khadija Ismayilova ©IRFS

Award-winning investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova was detained in December on the absurd charge of 'inciting a former colleague to suicide'. Khadija had published a list of political prisoners and was investigating claims of links between President Aliyev's family and a lucrative construction project in Baku.

She previously received anonymous threats that intimate videos, believed to have been filmed covertly by government officials at her home, would be published if she did not abandon her work

Khadija's mother Elmira says she had been expecting her daughter's arrest. In a ramshackle Baku suburb, over a glass of black tea at her dining table set with bowls of miniature chocolate bars and the sweet murabba jam served after and in between every meal, she says she had, in fact, feared worse.

"I was worried she could be killed, after what happened to Elmar Huseynov," she says, referring to the journalist, also a family member, murdered in 2005 after criticising the president and the government. "That was my main worry. So if you compare it, the fact she's in prison is better."

Asked if she ever encouraged her daughter to stop, knowing the risks she was taking, Elmira says she always supported Khadija's work.

"I'm very proud of her. I feel like she has done the right thing," she said. "Since she was young I have seen her sacrificing herself for the truth. When her sisters tried to hide bad school marks she came to me and told me. She has had this gauge inside her since childhood." 

Azerbaijan is one of the worst countries in the world for press freedom according to Reporters Without Borders. In the last six months, at least 25 journalists have fled for their safety. If Khadija is released she is unlikely to add to that number, says her mother.

"Khadija says she is needed here. She is useful for her country. She needs to be here." 

The lawyer

Nineteen-year-old Necmin Kamilsoy's father Intigam Aliyev is imprisoned; Necmin said the family had been expecting the arrest too.

Intigam Aliyev ©Twitter

A widely-respected human rights lawyer, Intigam was arrested last summer and detained on politically-motivated charges of tax evasion and illegal business activity. He had just taken a number of cases against the Azerbaijani government to the European Court of Human Rights.

Sitting in his father's study in their airy house in the neighbouring city of Sumqayit, Necmin proudly shows the awards Intigam has won for his work, including the prestigious Sakharov Freedom prize.

"We knew his work was risky and when other human rights lawyers and journalists were starting to be arrested we knew he´d be next," Necmin said. "He is such a generous, kind hearted man and he hasn´t done anything wrong. We miss him and we want him home."

The human rights activists

Leyla Yunus, a 60-year-old human rights activist and one of the most outspoken and high-profile critics of the government, was arrested last July -- a few days after calling for a boycott of the Games because of Azerbaijan's dire human rights record.

Leyla is being held in pre-trial detention. She is charged with treason, conducting illegal business, tax evasion, abuse of authority, fraud and forgery.

Her husband Arif is also detained and faces similar trumped-up and politically-motivated charges -- the result of new regulations brought in by the government to allow it to arbitrarily shut down NGOs and imprison their leaders.

Leyla and Arif Yunus ©Private

Leyla and Arif's daughter Dinara lives in Amsterdam. She hasn't seen her parents since they were arrested last summer.

"My parents dedicated thirty years of their lives to human rights," she says. "Now they are in different cells in different prisons because they decided to speak out."

In this video, Dinara asks "Mr President, can you tell me why my mother is in prison after she was critical of the upcoming Games? What are you scared of Mr President? Why do you choose repression over freedom?"

"Enough is enough," is what Elmira Ismayilova would tell President Aliyev if she had the chance. "You have sucked everything from this country. You have enough for your family and future generations of your family. Please stop."

There are many more

These sentiments are no doubt shared by the families of many others jailed for criticising or challenging the authorities.

Rasul Jafarov, for example, organiser of the Sing for Democracy campaign during the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest in Baku who had been planning to use the Games to highlight human rights abuses. He has been held in pre-trial detention since last August.

And opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov, sentenced to seven years on politically-motivated charges over a year ago. Last week the Council of Europe, the body charged with overseeing human rights on the continent, issued a second demand for his release.

And Siraj Kerimli, the brother of opposition politician Faraj Kerimli. Siraj was sentenced this week to six years in prison on trumped-up drug trafficking charges, in what appears to be a new and alarming trend towards targeting activists' families.

And Emin Huseynov, director of Azerbaijan's Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, now holed up in the Swiss embassy in Baku's Old Town for his own safety.

In an annual spring presidential pardon, two prisoners of conscience were released this week, Bashir Suleymanli and Orkhan Eyyubzade, both outspoken critics of the authorities. While their release is welcome, many more remain wrongly imprisoned.

Paranoia at the heart of power

All of this has had the effect of paralysing civil society, shutting down discussion and debate. The government may have one eye on conflict in the Middle East and the other on Ukraine and now Georgia, but why such a crackdown, when opposition and government critics posed no real threat to stability or to Aliyev's grasp on power?

The government appears increasingly paranoid as it looks to the future -- oil reserves will only last another 20 years, for gas it's 50. When the boom is over, what then?

And since the crisis began in Ukraine, the international community -- keen to access more secure sources of oil and gas than the Russian market -- has been remarkably quiet about Azerbaijan's human rights record. Their silence means simply that Baku has been able to get away with it.

The glitz and glamour of a major sports event are all very well, but not when they are used as an attempt to launder a tarnished image to the world. Amnesty is calling for all Azerbaijan's prisoners of conscience to be released immediately and unconditionally. That would be a goal worthy of Bahramov's flag.