Baku
A man walks by the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center ahead of the 1st European Games on June 11, 2015 in Baku, Azerbaijan.Jamie Squire/Getty Images for BEGOC

This is supposed to be Azerbaijan's moment, showing a modern, outward-looking country to the world after its ruling regime has spent an estimated $6.5 billion on the first-ever European Games.

This is the first of a series of sporting events Azerbaijan has bid for, including the European Grand Prix 2016 and matches in the 2020 European football championship.

In Baku, no expense has been spared, with athletes receiving free flights and accommodation, all on the state, as well as London restaurants, a specially printed magazine, and sponsorship of European football clubs.

All this is supposed to buy the ruling regime an air of respectability - but Azerbaijan's jails tell a very different story. Far from the new stadiums and sporting facilities some of the best minds Azerbaijan has to offer sit behind bars.

They include Rasul Jarafov, the founder of the Sport for Rights campaign, who in a twist of cruel irony, wanted to use the European Games to lobby for respect for human rights.

He was jailed for "illegal entrepreneurship", tax evasion, and "abuse of power" - in other words for operating a civil society organisation which, in any democratic country, would be allowed to register with the state and be supported with tax breaks.

Rasul's appeal against his six-and-a-half-year sentence was scheduled for the morning of the opening ceremony of the games, but perhaps fearing too obvious a contrast between the absurd Potemkin spectacle of their ceremony and a young human rights activist in jail, the authorities postponed it.

Human rights groups who wanted to raise cases like Jarafov's, including Amnesty International and Platform (part of the Sport for Rights coalition), were denied entry to the country.

And it isn't just human rights activists who have been turned away. Britain's Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, John Whittingdale, is barred from Azerbaijan as are a number of politicians from across Europe, Bloomberg editor Tony Halpin, and journalists from the New York Times to the Irish Times, among many others.

It speaks volumes when a country tries to use sport to improve its reputation, but won't let a leading sports minister attend.

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev
Azerbaijan's President Ilham AliyevReuters

The damage to sport goes much further. The Dutch surprisingly pulled out of hosting the 2019 European Games on Wednesday, saying it would cost too much. This happened after politicians turned up the pressure on the European Commission not to attend official events in Baku connected to the games before the political prisoners had been released.

One Dutch politician, Marietje Schaake MEP, stated: "The authorities in Azerbaijan are interested in hosting major international events in order to increase the international stature of Azerbaijan. Yet the European Games should not mask the fact that fundamental rights are systematically being violated. Activists such as Leyla Yunus, who was nominated for the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament last year, are in prison without medical care or access to a lawyer".

There is little doubt that the European Games have served as a catalyst for the round of arrests that have paralysed Azerbaijani civil society. Certainly, the human rights situation in the country hasn't been worse since the fall of the Soviet Union. It's not just the streets of Baku that have been scrubbed of anything the regime doesn't want to see, it is the Azerbaijani people, too.

The world of sport likes to believe it is above politics, but when sport is used as a fig-leaf for the violation of fundamental rights, can it remain silent without compromising its integrity?

With FIFA in crisis, the deaths in Qatar mounting, and the European Games without a host for 2019, the world of sport needs to remind itself of its ability to inspire. Being part of the Azerbaijani regime's plan to "sports-wash" its image should not be part of the vision of the European Olympic Committees.

Rebecca Vincent is a human rights activist and former US diplomat. She currently coordinates the Sport for Rights campaign.