Twitter users co-opt #HelloBaku to spotlight rights abuses 

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April 16, Baku: Social media users have hijacked the hashtag #HelloBaku to draw attention to human rights and free speech violations in Azerbaijan ahead of this summer’s inaugural European Games in the capital Baku.

Baku 2015 organisers launched the hashtag contest on 4 March 2015, as part of a promotional push ahead of the games, which start on 12 June. Social media users were invited to enter by posting a photo or video of themselves holding a sign with #HelloBaku written on it. The winner, set to be announced this week, will be awarded two tickets to the opening ceremony, as well as a night at a luxury hotel and flights.
But the campaign backfired, as a number of social media users instead used #HelloBaku to highlight Azerbaijan’s poor record on human rights. According to the latest estimates, there are over 100 political prisoners in the country. Since last summer, authorities have been engaged in an unprecedented onslaught against its most prominent critics, jailing investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, pro-democracy activist Rasul Jafarov, human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev and others on trumped up charges. On 9 April, prosecutors asked for a 9-year sentence for Jafarov, who stands accused of tax evasion and malpractice, among other things.

On 30 March, the same day the contest closed, Human Rights Watch researcher Giorgi Gogia, who was set to attend the trial hearing of Aliyev and Jafarov, was blocked from entering Azerbaijan. Traveling from his native Georgia, Gogia does not require a visa to go to Azerbaijan. Despite this, his passport was taken away and he was held at the Heydar Aliyev International Airport in Baku for 31 hours without explanation, before being sent back to Tbilisi.

Azerbaijan’s authorities, led by President Ilham Aliyvev, have been accused by human rights groups of running an expensive international PR operation to whitewash rights violations, and present the country as a “modern, outward looking state“. According to the Baku European Games Operation Committee (BEGOC), the games will “showcase Azerbaijan as a vibrant and modern European nation of great achievement”.

London-based marketing firm 1000heads, whose clients include Yahoo, Procter & Gamble and Lego, worked with Baku 2015 organisers on #HelloBaku. Index contacted 1000heads to ask whether they were aware of criticisms against Azerbaijan’s human rights record before taking on the job, and their response to the hijacking of the hashtag.

“We were working with BEGOC, the Baku European Games Operation Committee, which is responsible for delivering the event for athletes from the 49 National Olympic Committees of Europe. We are no longer involved,” 1000heads CEO Mike Rowe said in an email.

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