By Alan Baldwin
BAKU (Reuters) – Formula One will race in Baku with a clear conscience this weekend, the sport’s commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone said on Thursday in response to questions about human rights in Azerbaijan.
“Absolutely. 100 percent,” he told reporters ahead of the European Grand Prix, the first to be held in the former Soviet republic.
Various European bodies and human rights groups have accused Azeri President Ilham Aliyev of muzzling dissent and jailing opponents, charges that Baku denies.
Rights groups including Amnesty International have also urged Ecclestone to call publicly for the freeing of all prisoners of conscience.
“The minute people tell me what human rights are, then you can have a look at them and see how and when and where it applies. Do any of you know what human rights are?,” said Ecclestone.
After reporters raised some of the issues, also mentioning corruption, Ecclestone replied:
“I tell you what we ought to do. As far as we are concerned, not have any races where there is corruption in the country. Can you tell me where we are going to be racing?”
Senior members of Formula One management, but not Ecclestone, met campaigners in London last week and the Briton said the Azerbaijan authorities had given an assurance that “they are looking into all these things.
“Certainly while we are here none of you guys will be in trouble and you can write what you want,” he added.
Known for flippant and sometimes incendiary remarks, Ecclestone had responded to an earlier question about journalists being imprisoned for criticizing the government by saying: “So they should. Depends what they say. You say they write negative things. Depends what they write.”
Baku’s street circuit has won positive reviews from teams and drivers who were inspecting it on Thursday, some even running in the heat.
The layout incorporates the medieval walls of the old fortress and a long high-speed blast along the shores of the Caspian Sea.
“I think they’ve donea fantastic job,” said Ecclestone. “When I laid it out in the first place I was told I was mad, trying to get the old city and the new city together. It looks like it’s worked alright.”
He said the promoters had a seven year deal, with options.
Asked whether they would see it out, with Azerbaijan suffering from the slump in oil prices, he replied: “I think there’s more chance of them doing seven years than me doing seven years.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by Toby Chopra)