- Euro 2020 "is little more than a vanity project or window dressing by an authoritarian government to attract international attention".
BAKU: Ahead of Euro 2020, critics of Azerbaijan's authoritarian leader Ilham Aliyev are accusing him of capitalising on the country's hosting duties to whitewash widespread corruption and rampant rights violations.
Activists in the ex-Soviet country and abroad have long accused Aliyev of attempting to gloss over abuses, and are now saying he is leveraging football's European Championship and other international sports events to disguise abuses against critics and endemic corruption.
"Azerbaijan has a track record of using mega sports events to whitewash its abysmal human rights record," Giorgi Gogia, Human Rights Watch associate director for Europe and Central Asia, told AFP.
Euro 2020 "is little more than a vanity project or window dressing by an authoritarian government to attract international attention".
The oil-rich country on the Caspian Sea is set to host three Euro 2020 group games in June featuring Switzerland, Turkey and Wales and a quarter-final in July.
The fixtures, which are due to be held at the 68,000-capacity Olympic Stadium in the capital, Baku, come on the back of several other high-profile sporting events in Azerbaijan in recent years.
In 2019, British teams Arsenal and Chelsea played there in the Europa League final, and in 2015 the inaugural European Games -- a multi-discipline event contested by athletes from across Europe -- were held in Baku.
The capital is also scheduled later this year to host the Formula 1 Grand Prix for the fifth time since 2016.
The head of Azerbaijan's sports department Farid Mansurov said that "hosting major sports competitions is aimed at promoting Azerbaijan's image as a sports country."
"Thanks to Euro 2020, Formula 1, and many other international sports events, Azerbaijan is now known worldwide as a sports country," he told AFP.
President Aliyev, who took over in 2003 after the death of his father Heydar Aliyev -- a former KGB officer and communist-era leader -- has long faced criticism for suppressing political dissent and suffocating critical media.
Rights groups have accused the authorities of using spurious drugs or weapons possession charges, tax evasion and even treason to jail activists and journalists.
The Reporters Without Borders media advocacy group ranked the country 167 out of 180 on its annual Press Freedom Index this year.
And in April, Human Rights Watch accused authorities of using coronavirus restrictions "to arrest opposition activists and silence government critics".
The Azerbaijani government rejects responsibility for rights violations.
The Transparency International anti-corruption watchdog, in its 2020 Corruption Perception Index, ranked Azerbaijan 129th among the 180 countries it evaluated.
Journalist Mehman Aliyev, who heads the country's sole independent news agency, Turan, told AFP "there is no transparency whatsoever about the government's expenditures on sports infrastructure and on hosting sports events."
Hundreds of millions -- if not billions -- of petrodollars were spent on the construction of National Gymnastics Arena, the Aquatic Palace and the Olympic Stadium, according to local media reports.
In 2013-2020, Azerbaijan's state-run oil company, SOCAR, was a major sponsor of European football's governing body UEFA.
Sports department chief Mansurov insisted the lavish spending is "part of the state's support and promotion of sports inside the country."
Khadija Ismayilova, a journalist who spent years in prison for reporting on alleged corruption in the Aliyev family, said the strongman was spending big on sports to bolster popularity that has skyrocketed since a territorial conflict with Armenia last year.
The war saw Baku recapture territories which had been for decades controlled by Armenian separatists.
Both Azerbaijani and Armenian military were accused of using banned weapons and abusing prisoners of war during the six-week conflict that left more than 6,000 dead.
At home, at least, Euro 2020 "is just an additional boost for his political capital," said Ismayilova.
"Aliyev is a zealous sports fan, he is excited about organising top sporting events. But his claims that his whim is helping to improve the country's international image are totally wrong," she added.
"Azerbaijan doesn't exist on the world's sports map. Azerbaijan doesn't have a single athlete recognised worldwide."