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BAKU (Reuters) - Azerbaijan rejected claims it had cracked down on human rights activists and political opponents ahead of the European Games starting on Friday, saying there were no political prisoners in its jails.
Baku is playing host to the first continental multi-sports event and accusations of consistent human rights violations have accompanied it ever since it was awarded the Games back in 2012.
"Political prisoners, this question has been frequently used by some western circles," Ali Hasanov, Assistant of the President on public-political issues, told a news conference on Thursday.
"There are no political prisoners in Azerbaijan. There are people who are in prison for criminal offences. There are judicial courts that take decisions on these cases. And no sovereign state can interfere with the decision of the courts and change it," he said.
Several international human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) as well as some European politicians have accused the Azerbaijan government of arresting, jailing and torturing journalists, human rights defenders and opposition group members.
"There are 55 political parties in Azerbaijan and they all take part in rallies, pickets and elections and they practice with full freedom," Hasanov, sitting next to the country's sports minister Azad Rahimov, said.
"Some European organizations are running a campaign that claims there are political prisoners in Azerbaijan, that there is no independent press, but this is all groundless."
Energy-rich Azerbaijan, governed by President Ilham Aliyev since he succeeded his father in 2003, has been courted by the West because of its role as an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas to Europe.
In April an Azeri court sentenced well-known human rights activist Rasul Jafarov to six and a half years in jail on embezzlement and tax evasion charges.
Earlier on Thursday the Guardian newspaper said its chief sports correspondent, Owen Gibson, was not given an accreditation that also acts as a visa to enter the country after the paper's coverage of Games preparations in Baku back in December.
Amnesty also said two days ago several of its members, traveling to Baku to present what would be a damning report on the government's human rights record, were barred from entering.
Baku has spent more than a billion dollars in staging the inaugural June 12-28 European Games, hoping to reinforce its international image as a top destination for major sports events.
European Olympic Committees president Patrick Hickey, whose organization awarded the Games to Baku, said it was not up to him to tell a sovereign state what to do.
"We have been working away behind the scenes to solve these problems. We had a meeting with HRW International. We have done everything we can to find answers to these questions," Hickey told reporters.
"There's one thing we cannot do and that is to dictate to a sovereign state how to run its affairs."
Reporting by Karolos Grohmann