Azerbaijan to host European Games amid human rights concerns

  • The Caspian Sea Side of Baku, Azerbaijan, May 2015.
  • View of the governmental building in the center of Baku and the new construction area on the shore of the Caspian Sea.
  • People gather to watch the journey of the Olympic Torch for the European Games in Baku, May 2015.
  • The oil field of Bibi-Heybat, where the first oil well was mechanically drilled in 1846. 
  • An aerial view of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. Because of the difficult relationship between Azerbaijan and Armenia, flying to Nakhchivan means flying over Iran.
  • Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. People gather to watch the journey of the Olympic Torch for the First European Games 2015.
  • Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, aerial view, May 2015.
  • A view of the Caspian Sea side of Baku.
  • The governmental building in the center of the city of Baku and new construction on the shore of the Caspian Sea.
  • The new swimming stadium built for the first European Olympic Games in Baku, Ajerbaijan, May 2015.
  • On the road from Baku to Naftalan, Ajerbaijan.
  • A traditional wedding in Naftalan, Azerbaijan.
  • View of the Crystal Hall Complex in Baku.
  • A view of the new Olympic village, created for the first European Games in Baku.
  • Portrait of Naimin Kamilsly (in front) and Murlana Badalova, the son and wife of Intigam Aliyev. Intigam Aliyev is a widely respected human rights defender and lawyer in Azerbaijan who was jailed in 2014 along with other human rights activists as part of a country-wide crackdown. 
  • A view of Baku’s city center near the train station.
  • A view from the road between Baku and Naftalan.
  • View from the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center designed by architect Zaha Hadid. Heydar Aliyev was the first president of Azerbaijan.
  • On the road from Baku to Naftalan, Azerbaijan.
  • People gather to watch the journey of the Olympic torch for the European Games 2015 in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic.
  • A view of the new stadium built for the European Games in Baku.
  • The Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center in Baku, named after the first president of the country and designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid
  • A mountain in Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic.
  • A man after a “crude oil bath” in Naftalan, Ajerbaijan. The thick black oil is used as a treatment for joint pain among other diseases. In the west of the country, a rich variety of crude oil contains a supposedly curative chemical called Naphthalene.
  • Mountains in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan. Because of the difficult relationship between Azerbaijan and Armenia, flying to Nakhchivan means flying over Iran.
  • People walk down a path in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic.
  • An aerial view of the gulf, Baku, Azerbaijan.
  • An aerial view of the oil rig in the gulf of Baku, Azerbaijan.
  • A view of the gulf and an oil rig in Baku.
  • A view from the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, designed by architect Zaha Hadid.
  • Guests at a traditional wedding in Naftalan, Azerbaijan.
  • View in the city center with a portrait of Heydar Aliyev, first president of Azerbaijan.
  • View of the Flame Towers in Baku, which consist of apartments, a hotel and office blocks.
  • People gather to watch the journey of the Olympic Torch for the European Games 2015 in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, a landlocked exclave of Azerbaijan.
  • View from the oil field of Bibi-Heybat, where the first oil well was mechanically drilled in 1846. 

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The 2015 European Games, scheduled to be held in Baku, Azerbaijan, from June 12-28, 2015, will be the inaugural edition of the European Games. This series of photographs, shot in May of 2015 by Davide Monteleone, explores the city of Baku and infrastructure of the games.

BAKU, Azerbaijan (Reuters) — The European Games, the first major multi-sports event of the continent, are set to kick off in Azerbaijan’s Baku on Friday as gleaming new sports venues await 6,000 athletes, lured by qualification spots for next year’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

The Azeri capital has pulled out all the stops as it looks to establish itself as a viable option for international sports events with a string of impressive venues, including a brand new Olympic stadium that will see just two days of competition.

Azerbaijan, however, is under criticism over its human rights record and some rights organisations have said their officials have been barred from entering the country during the Games.

The athletes will compete in 20 sports, 16 of which are on the Olympic programme and 12 of them offering qualification spots, indirect or direct, for next year’s summer Olympics in Brazil.

Organisers have also added several experimental events, including 3x3 basketball, beach football and mixed pair aerobic gymnastics among others, with the European Olympic Committees, the umbrella organisation, eager to test them for possible future inclusion in the Olympics proper.

Athletics and swimming, two of the biggest sports on the Olympic programme, however, have refused to send their top athletes to the event, opting to send lower-ranked teams, robbing the Games of additional exposure.

Azerbaijan, on the outer fringes of the European continent, may not be the obvious choice but given its financial clout at a time when other major European nations struggled with the economic crisis, it was a safe choice.

Sparing no cost, the Azeris have raced to complete preparations in less than three years with several spectacular venues sprinkled over the capital, including the national gymnastics arena and the brand-new 68,000-seater Olympic stadium.

With a future Olympics bid firmly in its sights, Azerbaijan wants to prove its ability to host a major international sports event of this size.

HUMAN RIGHTS

But not everything is sparkling under the hot summer sun on the shores of the Caspian sea, with energy-rich Azerbaijan under constant criticism over its human rights record.

On Tuesday the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was given one month to halt its operations in the former Soviet republic, months before a parliamentary election this autumn.

Amnesty International officials were then barred from entering Baku later on Tuesday, the organisation said.

“It is deeply ironic that the launch of a briefing outlining how critical voices in the country have been systematically silenced ahead of the European Games cannot be held,” said Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia in a statement.

“But rather than bury this message, the actions of the authorities have only highlighted their desperate attempts to create a criticism-free zone around the Games.”

Azerbaijan, governed by President Ilham Aliyev since he succeeded his father in 2003, has been courted by the West because of its role as an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas to Europe.

EOC officials and Games organizers have repeatedly avoided to be drawn into this issue, saying politics should not be part of the Games. 

With reporting from Karolos Grohmann, Reuters.

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography 

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