Simon Clegg
Simon Clegg is the chief operating officer of Baku 2015 in Azerbaijan, the first ever European Games. Getty

It is not the role of organisers of the Baku 2015 European Games to speak out against human rights abuses in Azerbaijan under the authoritarian rule of President Ilham Aliyev, according to a top British sports official responsible for managing the event.

Simon Clegg is chief operating officer of Baku 2015, a role he was given after years of experience in sport management, which includes playing a major part in bringing the Olympics to London in 2012 while he was chief executive of the British Olympics Association (BOA).

Human rights organisations repeatedly attack Azerbaijan and the Aliyev government for its abuses, such as the arrest and detention of critical political activists, beatings in prison, and allegations of financial corruption that go right to the top. They are calling on Baku 2015 organisers to speak out.

When asked by IBTimes UK what he thought of the recent crackdown on human rights in oil-rich Azerbaijan ahead of the Baku 2015 games, some events at which will serve as qualifiers for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Clegg would not comment.

"I understand that it's difficult to separate sport and politics, but in this regard I am incredibly focused on what I have to deliver," Clegg said, adding that he only has 30 months to arrange the event rather than the seven years usually afforded to organisers.

"That's where I need to be focused, my efforts and attentions, to ensure that I deliver the best possible games for the best athletes in Europe and for Azerbaijan. In terms of political issues, those need to be directed towards politicians."

Aliyev's Vision

Critics of Aliyev, who took over from his father as president and has won two controversial elections, the last of which in 2008 he got 87% of the votes cast, say he is using the games to bolster his image and legitimise his administration in the eyes of the international community.

A leaked US diplomatic cable, revealed by Wikileaks, showed American officials comparing him to a mafia boss. There have been allegations, denied by Aliyev, that money has made its way from the state oil company to an account owned by him.

"One should never forget that President Aliyev, although he continues to be, he was the president of the National Olympic Committee (NOC) of Azerbaijan before he became president of the country," said Clegg, who also spent years in the British Army and is a former chief executive of Ipswich Town FC.

"He's been to a number of Olympic Games as president of his NOC, so he clearly understands the power of sport and what that can deliver for a young nation.

"Azerbaijan's only 22 years old. It had decades of Soviet rule before that, and the president's vision in terms of what can be delivered for his country through sport is why I'm here and I absolutely buy into that. I'm very happy to be here."

Authoritarian Nature

Amnesty International has received an increasing number of reports of arrests, detention and harassment of human rights activists, the political opposition and government critics in Azerbaijan ahead of the Baku 2015 event. Other organisations such as Index on Censorship are documenting similar concerns.

Levan Asatiani, a campaigner for Amnesty International, told IBTimes UK that he has heard reports of young political activists having drugs planted on them by police, being arrested and handed sentences of up to ten years in prison after having confessions beaten out of them. Others were locked up over critical statuses on Facebook.

Ilham Aliyev
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev won the Organized Crime and Corruption Person of the Year award (2012)

The NGO said it thinks there are 24 prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan. One of the most recent detainees is Leyla Yunus, Azerbaijan's best known human rights advocate.

She and others have been accused of financial impropriety as well as spying for the Armenian government, with which Azerbaijan has had armed clashes over the disputed Azeri border territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Amnesty International said the charges are "trumped up".

"The human rights situation has never been close to decent in Azerbaijan, but the recent weeks have shown the very authoritarian nature of the government," Asatiani said.

"Right now the regime in Azerbaijan is trying to create an environment where it would cleanse all of its critics and would leave Azerbaijan a place where nobody would criticise the government and its repressive actions."


Some of Aliyev's critics are saying he is using high diplomatic tensions with Armenia, which he called a "state of war" on Twitter, as a cover to target and lock up political activists, hence the spying charges laid on Yunus and others.

Baku 2015's Clegg would not be drawn on whether he thought the escalating Armenia situation posed any threat to the event going ahead.

"There has been a political dimension to every games that I have been at previously. Political issues need to be directed towards politicians," Clegg, who has worked with Aliyev in the past and knows the president, said.

"I am very clear on the responsibilities that I have been charged with. That is what I am focused on delivering and that's what I'm going to answer questions about.

"I'm not going to be dragged in to wider political issues that actually, if they are to be asked, are to be asked of politicians not of people being responsible for delivering a sporting event."

Clegg added that it was the right of others to raise whatever concerns they like off the back of the games, but reiterated that his focus was solely on preparations for the event.


But Amnesty International's Asatiani said it was the responsibility of organisers, such as the European Olympics Committee (EOC), to use their position to raise human rights with the Azeri government through formal and informal channels.

"If the European Games are held in the same repressive environment in Azerbaijan as it is now, it will definitely damage the credibility of these games," he said.

Many Western governments already turn a blind eye Azerbaijan's authoritarian government because the country is rich with resources, such as oil and gas. It is also a relatively stable political ally for the West on the borders of the Middle East.