Intolerance and oppression overshadow Azerbaijan's glamorous European Games

The European Games open in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, on 12 June. Some 6,000 athletes from almost 50 countries are set to compete.

But Khadija Ismayilova, below, the country's best known investigative journalist, is unlikely to attend. Ismayilova, a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) has just celebrated her 39th birthday in prison.

For years Ismayilova has been subjected to harassment, smear campaigns and intimidation after exposing the business activities of the country's ruling elite. At one stage intimate footage of Ismayilova was released on the internet in an attempt to silence her. Unbowed, she continued working until 5 December 2014, when she was arrested on the Kafkaesque charge of inciting an ex-colleague to attempt suicide.

Three weeks later her Baku office was raided. Investigators and armed police ransacked the bureau, confiscated documents and detained other staff members for several hours before releasing them. Ismayilova's accuser withdrew his claim but a new set of charges soon followed: embezzlement, abuse of power, tax evasion and running an illegal business. Ismayilova faces a prison sentence of 12 years if found guilty.

"The charges are absurd. The regime intends to keep her in prison for a long time,"  Kenan Aliyev, former director of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service, tells Newsweek. "But Khadija is strong and she is a fighter. There is no government or regime that can break her spirit."

On 5 May PEN American Center honoured Ismayilova with the Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. Her case has garnered international attention – especially as RFE/RL is funded by the US Congress – but she is one of numerous Azerbaijani reporters, bloggers and human rights activists to face criminal charges. Reporters Without Borders ranks Azerbaijan 162 out of 180 countries for press freedom. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Azerbaijan as the fifth most censored country in the world, above Iran, China and Cuba.

Azerbaijani officials are keen to use the European Games to showcase the capital, Baku, and the country at large, just as they did in 2012 when Azerbaijan hosted the Eurovision Song Contest. The Games are supported by the European Olympic Committee. Sponsors include Tissot watches, Coca-Cola and McDonald's. There is a slick English-language website and Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts.

For now, the sporting and wider world's attention is focused on the chaos at FIFA, football's world governing body. But the growing repression in Baku also demands action, say activists. Beyond the glitzy, glamorous image, things have never been worse in Azerbaijan, says Rebecca Vincent, coordinator of the Sport for Rights campaign. "Khadija is a prisoner of the games, and the regime did not want her to be out. Nearly everybody who is publicly critical has fled, been locked up or pressurised to be silent."

President Ilham Aliyev's increasing repression is sounding alarms across Europe and in the USA. On 13 April 45 former US officials, experts, organisations and activists wrote to John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, noting that Azerbaijan has twice as many political prisoners as Russia and Belarus combined. The signatories called for visa bans and asset freezes on government officials involved in gross human rights abuses and the ceasing of trade promotion assistance to state-owned entities. "The government in Azerbaijan cannot be both a respected member of the international community and a repressive, kleptocratic autocracy. It must choose."

Azerbaijan's defenders point out that the country is a rare island of stability in an ever-more turbulent region and an ally of the West. Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the European Union's Eastern Partnership. The moderate Shia-majority, oil-rich state, has strong relations with Israel. A steady ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism, it is also a useful listening post into Iran.

Thus far, President Aliyev has been able to continue his deft balancing act. Still, there are signs that the regime is becoming rattled. President Aliyev did not attend the EU summit in Riga on 21 May, claiming he was too busy with preparations for the games. As for Khadija Ismayilova, she remains as defiant as ever. "Yes, there is a price to pay," she wrote from prison, "but it is worth it. We need to build a new reality where truth will be a norm of life and telling the truth will not require courage."

Correction: This article originally stated that Khadija Ismayilova was awarded the Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award by PEN USA. It was in fact PEN American Center, a separate organisation.