Another Formula 1 weekend, another opportunity to turn the other cheek and talk about racing as the sport heads to another country that is in hot water regarding its human rights negligence.
F1 is a business, and the decision to go to Baku is without question a business decision, devoid of any emotive reasoning. Azerbaijan wants to have a slice of global sports to increase its national profile, President Alyev and his government have spent £6.5 billion on stadiums, sporting infrastructure, sporting bids and the track, but it is apparent that this comes at the cost of its residents. Behind the stage of glamour, past the barriers and into the dust are Azerbaijan’s prisons, home to political opposition, journalists, bloggers and activists who have had their lives ruined by critiquing the Government. These aren’t anarchists in the streets with molotovs who threatened and endangered locals, these are people who have written, analysed, interpreted the actions of their government and have been locked away as a result.
The asphalt has covered the ancient cobbled streets and many of the inward facing buildings around the circuit have been sandblasted to suggest to viewers tuning in for the Grand Prix that Baku is consistently beautiful throughout. Journalists for international and regional Motorsport publications will flock to the circuit this weekend with the freedom to express their own insight onto the build-up, the race, the key players and other topics around the paddock. Under the President of the country they are attending, they would receive a single press release of which any deviation would result in imprisonment.
Formula 1 heads to some places with questionable track records in human rights, and this topic in particular is one that rubs some fans up the wrong way given that sport is an opiate in which real-world issues can vanish momentarily. But as a fan tuning in and supporting Formula 1 heading to Baku, the actions of their government against people who have opposed them through the written word should strike a chord when you watch your TV commentators and screen presences critique, analyse and offer independent insight.
Last year, a woman who was externally appreciated for her award-winning journalism was released from prison after 7-years inside for criticising the ruling Alyev family. On the prospect of the Grand Prix, she said,
“The basic things are not available to ordinary people in this oil-rich Azerbaijan, like health and education. People will not protest loudly, but they are not excited by this race either. Most of them are deprived of an opportunity to see it, for a start.
People are upset that historic streets have been ripped up – how do you restore history? When they built the new luxury hotel, they destroyed part of the city wall.
When they were digging foundations, they found ancient tunnels and filled them with cement so it would not delay. All such places are owned by the first family, who can do as they please.
Citizens complain about demolition of their houses, but they have nowhere to address problems. Civil society has been so weakened, the system torn down, independent media outlets shut down. Only a handful of independent journalists are left. Absolutely, I am staying. I’m not afraid of being sent back to prison.”
– Khadija Ismayilova
There will be those who make the statement that Formula 1 doesn’t need to assess where it goes to because the money matters, and there is suppression of some form in most countries that it visits. Enjoy the race, but some of us will be hanging our heads in shame as we watch.