Groups call on F1 and Bernie Ecclestone to take stand against Azerbaijan

Sutton Images

Protest groups have called on F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone to publicly speak out against Azerbaijan's human rights record ahead of its inaugural grand prix.

Azerbaijan's Grand Prix of Europe is a new addition to the F1 calendar, with the race set to take place around the streets of capital city Baku on June 19. Sport for Rights, a coalition of international organisations hoping to draw attention to the nation's human rights record, met with Formula One Management (FOM) officials earlier this week.

It follows the publication of an open letter to F1 officials last month, which said: "In the run-up to the European Grand Prix in Baku, the Azerbaijani authorities have continued with their human rights crackdown to silence critical voices. We urge you to use the European Grand Prix as an opportunity to speak out against the crackdown and call for the release of jailed journalists and activists."

Sport for Rights are hopeful of discussions with F1 chief Ecclestone before the grand prix weekend begins. The group has also called on singers Pharrell Williams, Enrique Iglesias and Chris Brown to cancel the performances planned during the event.

A spokesperson told ESPN: "We viewed F1's decision to engage with us as positive, and the meeting was constructive. We agreed to keep in touch on these issues. We have received no indication of Ecclestone's own plans, but we will continue to engage with F1 and press for them to speak out publicly on human rights issues and call for the release of political prisoners in Azerbaijan."

The group accuses President Ilham Aliyev's regime of wrongful imprisonment of human rights defenders, journalists and bloggers, freezing financial public resources, and restrictive legislation. They claim that media outlets critical of the government have been harassed and intimidated and forced to close. The group also allege four journalists have died in custody since 2005.

Ecclestone has often said Formula One and politics should not mix, though the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix had to be cancelled amid protests and social unrest. The sport has returned every year since.

Phil Bloomer, executive director of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, has criticised F1 for not taking a harder line on human rights issues.

"Formula One should be commended for developing their human rights policy," Bloomer said at a recent London lecture "It is a decent, modest policy on human rights which follows quite religiously the United Nations' guiding principles of business and human rights.

"But we all know too many cases where human rights policies have been developed and not owned by the leadership and I think Bernie Ecclestone's comments demonstrate that. It then falls into that awful state of becoming a public image exercise rather than what I know some people in Formula One would like, which is to improve that image."