Amnesty International has called on Formula One to put pressure on Azeri authorities to improve their human rights record.
Sunday’s inaugural Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku is the latest example of that country’s increasing willingness to become involved in top-level sport.
The European Games were held there in June last year and in 2020 Baku is set to stage four games in football’s European Championship.
But Kerry Moscogiuri, director of campaigns at Amnesty International UK, said: “The arrival of Formula One in Baku must not steer attention away from the Azerbaijani authorities’ human rights crackdown.
“Behind the glitz the authorities are locking up their critics, have shut down NGOs and arrested or harassed their leaders. The recent release of some of those jailed on trumped-up charges should not fool anyone into thinking that the wind in Baku is blowing in a different direction.
“Azerbaijan has courted big international sports events to improve its image abroad and the Grand Prix is no different. While the world’s fastest drivers take to the streets of Baku in this spectacle of speed, there are many who will not be able to enjoy the show.
“F1 is in pole position to influence positive change in Azerbaijan. We would like to see them publicly urge President Aliyev to end this crackdown and free all prisoners of conscience.”
This month Sports for Rights campaign co-ordinator Rebecca Vincent, while not asking for the race to be cancelled, did ask Formula One’s chief executive, Bernie Ecclestone, to become involved.
She said: “We have called on Bernie Ecclestone to publicly speak out on human rights issues in Azerbaijan and to call for the release of political prisoners. We wrote him an open letter and there has not been a public response yet.
“Mr Ecclestone is in a position where he could really do good. This is an opportunity to improve Formula One’s image and to help people in Azerbaijan, rather than just profiting and helping some very corrupt people.”
She was backed up by Phil Bloomer, executive director of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, who said: “F1 should be commended for developing their human rights policy. It is a decent, modest policy on human rights which follows quite religiously the United Nations’ guiding principles of business and human rights.
“But we all know too many cases where human rights policies have been developed and not owned by the leadership [of the sport].”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010