Campaigners for human rights in Azerbaijan have met senior officials from Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula One Management in London ahead of the first race in the oil-rich country this month.
After writing an open letter calling on Ecclestone to criticise the Azerbaijani government amid claims of rights abuses, activists were invited into Formula One’s offices in Knightsbridge on Monday. Although Ecclestone was not present, it is understood that Sacha Woodward-Hill, F1‘s head of legal and a close ally of the 85-year-old, attended the meeting.
They are expected to meet again after the inaugural race, in Baku on June 19.
Human Rights Watch’s 2015 report on the former Soviet republic claimed there had been a “dramatic deterioration in its already poor rights record”, but at a briefing in London yesterday morning, campaigners stopped short of calling for a boycott of the race, fearing it would not have majority support in Azerbaijan.
Instead, they called on Ecclestone and F1 to publicly criticise president Ilham Aliyev’s regime.
The sport has been in a similar situation with the controversial race in Bahrain but, unlike in the Gulf State, no protests surrounding the Baku race are expected.
Last year, F1 published a “Statement of Commitment to Respect for Human Rights”, but the Sport for Rights campaign has been disappointed by Ecclestone’s comments since F1 said it had carried out due diligence on Azerbaijan.
The activists claim there has been a major crackdown in Azerbaijan on journalists, opposition politicians and leaders of non-government organisations. They welcomed the pardoning and conditional release of 16 human-rights activists and journalists in March, but said that justice had still not been done in their cases.
An unnamed Azerbaijan official, who identified himself at the briefing yesterday as being from the republic’s London embassy, rejected the allegations.
Azerbaijan is reported to have paid around pounds 25million to host the European Grand Prix, signing a 10-year contract. But with the economy struggling after a dramatic collapse in the oil price, there are doubts it will continue beyond one event.