Open Letter to Thomas Bach, International Olympic Committee President, on Khadija Ismayilova’s Imprisonment
April 15, 2015
International Olympic Committee
Dear President Bach,
Like you and your colleagues on the International Olympic Committee (IOC), we are looking forward to this June’s first European Games and the remarkable athletic competitions it holds in store. We expect the Games, to be held in Baku from June 12-28, 2015, to set a high standard for future European Games.
Yet as journalists and writers who cover major sporting events both in the United States and around the world, we are joining with PEN American Center to express concern that the host country for the Games, Azerbaijan, does not abide by the central human rights principles—among them freedom of the press—that live in the spirit of the Olympic Charter and that the IOC recently agreed to require of future Olympic host cities. Given Azerbaijan’s history of human rights abuses and current crackdown on dissent, we respectfully request your assistance to ensure that the involvement of the Olympic movement in these European Games does not result in a tacit endorsement of the Azeri regime’s brutal crackdown on free expression, and instead advances the causes of press and personal freedom as implied in the Olympic Charter.
The environment in Azerbaijan has become increasingly repressive for journalists. Media are strictly controlled by the government, leaving few independent sources of news and information. At least 26 writers are currently detained, on trial, or jailed in Azerbaijan, and others are subject to harassment, threats, and violence. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Azerbaijan is among the 10 worst jailers of journalists in the world, with the second-highest number of jailed journalists per capita. The nation has the dubious distinction of being the worst jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia.
The Azeri government’s crackdown on human rights defenders and investigative journalists has intensified in recent months. The high-profile case of award-winning Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalist Khadija Ismayilova demonstrates the lengths to which the Azeri government will go to silence its critics.
Since 2010, Ismayilova has gained international acclaim for her hard-hitting investigative reporting on official corruption—including that of the presidential family. After a years-long government campaign against her, Khadija was arrested on Dec. 5, 2014. On Feb. 23, 2015, Azeri courts convicted her in a closed-door trial on dubious charges of criminal libel. The Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s Office has also charged Ismayilova with embezzlement, illegal business, tax evasion, and abuse of power. She has been in pre-trial detention since her December arrest, and if convicted on all counts, she faces up to 12 years in prison. Ismayilova was not allowed to see family members until late March, more than three and half months after first being brought in. Further examples of the Azeri government’s unethical treatment, including invasions of privacy and attempts at blackmail, are detailed in an appendix to this letter.
On May 5, Ismayilova, whose record of outstanding work includes having translated Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner into Azeri, will receive the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award from PEN American Center. This prestigious annual award has a remarkable track record; 35 of the 39 recipients, all of whom have been in jail, have been released partly in response to the publicity generated by the Award.
We call on Azerbaijan’s government to immediately release Khadija Ismayilova and drop the charges against her before the European Games in Baku begin. We urge the IOC to use its leverage to make this same demand of the government, and to make clear that its crackdown on press freedom and free expression is unacceptable and antithetical to the spirit of the Olympic Charter.
We also urge the IOC to request that the government of Azerbaijan take concrete steps between now and the Games to ensure greater respect for press freedoms, including the release of other unjustly imprisoned journalists. We ask you to reach out to President Aliyev and strongly urge him to take immediate action to ensure that the spirit of the Olympic Charter is upheld and that the rights of Khadjia Ismayilova and her fellow journalists are vindicated.
As writers and journalists who cover major sporting events such as the Olympic Games, we understand that the IOC must remain politically neutral. In this case we are asking that you uphold the fundamental human rights principles implied in your Charter, and the standards soon to be officially required of all Olympic Games host cities, by assuring that Azerbaijan abides by those principles.
Dave Anderson, contributor, The New York Times
Harvey Araton, The New York Times
Roy Blount, Jr, Senior Special Contributor, Sports Illustrated
Howard Bryant, ESPN
Ken Burns, documentary filmmaker (Baseball)
Bob Costas, NBC Sports
Frank Deford, Sports Illustrated and NPR
Steve Fainaru, ESPN
Mark Fainaru-Wada, ESPN
Franklin Foer, New America Foundation
John Gierach, Fly Rod & Reel Magazine
Matt Higgins, contributor, The New York Times
Steve Isenberg, former Executive Director, PEN America
Kostya Kennedy, Contributing Editor, Sports Illustrated
Peter King, Sports Illustrated
Mark Kramer, Boston University
Tim Layden, Sports Illustrated
Michael Lewis, contributor to Bloomberg News and Vanity Fair
Robert Lipsyte, USA Today
David Maraniss, Washington Post
David Remnick, New Yorker
Jeremy Schaap, ESPN and ABC World News Tonight
George Vecsey, The New York Times
Dave Zirin, The Nation
*Affiliations are provided solely for identification purposes.