Slaves to Progress

Credit: Svetlana Tiourina
Published: April 28, 2020

Few authoritarian states have worked harder than Azerbaijan to leverage major international events to boost their image on the world stage.

In 2007, the country’s capital, Baku, hosted the European Rhythmic Gymnastics Championship in a newly refurbished sports complex named for the country’s dictatorial ex-president, Heydar Aliyev. In 2015, Lady Gaga sang “Imagine” at the opening ceremony of the first annual European Games, a glitzy affair held in a massive stadium purpose-built for the occasion. And in 2016, a racing circuit that hosts an annual Formula One Race opened right along the walls of Baku’s old city.

Human rights and democracy advocates have decried the strategy as a “sportswashing” of a regime where opposition parties are crushed, journalists are imprisoned, and oil wealth is controlled by a small clique of ruling elites.

That hasn’t stopped one of its key promoters, Youth and Sports Minister Azad Rahimov. "Each of these events strengthens Azerbaijan's place on the world map," he told the French news agency AFP last year.

But a new OCCRP investigation reveals the human cost of some of Rahimov’s projects — and the lengths the state has gone to protect its image when his complicity was unearthed.

Several of these marquee buildings were built or renovated by men from the Balkans who were shipped to Baku by a company that appears to be owned by the minister’s wife. They were forced to work long hours in grueling conditions for almost no pay. Two died there; many others were marked forever by their time toiling far from home.

“These traumas you carry with you for your whole life,” said one of these men, Seudin Zoletić. “That memory stays forever. It’s always there. Always, when you meet someone, it always comes up. And you remember, like I do now, whenever I breathe in.”

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Read the Stories

The Worker

Seudin Zoletić went to Azerbaijan for what he thought was a lucrative construction job. But he found himself a virtual prisoner, laboring without pay in appalling conditions on a major state project. Now he’s the voice of dozens of other workers seeking justice against the country’s authoritarian regime.

28 April 2020 Read the article

The Minister

A mysterious company brought hundreds of Balkan workers to Azerbaijan to work on a series of major projects in appalling conditions. As it turns out, there is strong evidence that the company was co-owned by the wife of Azad Rahimov, the country’s minister of youth and sports, who was ordering some of the work even as his family was profiting from it.

30 April 2020 Read the article

The Court

A landmark labor exploitation case against Azerbaijan should soon be decided by the European Court of Human Rights — more than ten years after it took place. The workers’ story would have been forgotten if not for the efforts of dedicated human rights advocates.

11 June 2020 Read the article

The Advocate

Once a powerful interior ministry official, Alovsat Aliyev became a workers’ rights activist in his native Azerbaijan. As the country’s government cracked down on dissidents, he fled — only to end up, for months, in a German prison. This is his story.

11 June 2020 Read the article

The Project Team

Project Lead: Miranda Patrucić

Writing: Ilya Lozovsky, Miranda Patrucić

Editing: Ilya Lozovsky, Julia Wallace, Kira Zalan, Caroline Henshaw, Drew Sullivan

Reporting: Miranda Patrucić, Madina Mammadova, Kelly Bloss, Ilya Lozovsky, Mubarek Asani, Aida Čerkez, Olga Gein, Azhar Kalamujić, Lejla Čamdžić, Bermet Talant, Igor Spaić, Ida Kuburović Hodžić, Khadija Ismayilova, Pavle Petrović

Video: Madeleine May, Matt Sarnecki

Fact Checking: Bojana Pavlović, Dima Stoianov

Layout: Adem Kurić

Promotion: Charles Turner

Illustrations: Svetlana Tiourina

Graphics: Edin Pašović

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