Eurovision: Azerbaijan and human rights

Tonight, Azerbaijan’s capital city, Baku, will host the Eurovision Song Contest. Few of the international contestants are probably aware of Azerbaijan’s appalling human rights record, particularly in regard to free expression.

President Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father, Heydar, a former Soviet Communist, in 2003 and has sustained his father’s hardline approach. There is growing alarm amongst human rights organisations at the prosecutions and violent harassment of members of the media in Azerbaijan, attacks on other dissenting voices and the authorities’ brutal response to peaceful protests. Although violations of freedom of expression are nothing new in the South Caucasus state, attacks and imprisonment of journalists, bloggers and human rights activists have risen sharply in the last two years. They face continuous harassment and interference from the authorities and many dissidents find themselves imprisoned or otherwise targeted for speaking out.

A coalition of lobby groups, coordinated by Article 19, has joined forces to campaign for free expression in Azerbaijan in the run up to Eurovision. Known as the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan (IPGA), they have released a report, RUNNING SCARED Azerbaijan’s Silenced Voices and launched a petition addressed to the international contestants.  

According to IPGA, on 26 March 2011, Seymour Khaziyev, a journalist with the opposition newspaper Azadliq, was abducted by six masked men as he was returning to his home on the outskirts of Baku. Taken in a minibus to an unknown location with a sack over his head, he was then tortured for two hours. The two telephones he was carrying were confiscated and the contents of his laptop were examined. He was warned against writing articles critical of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. One of his attackers asked him to be as “intelligent and quiet as the others”. He was finally released, with his hands still tied, a few miles from where he was captured.

Musicians are also subject to attack. Human Rights Watch reported that on 17 March 2012, two young musicians were detained during a protest in Baku. Members of the popular band Bulistan, they were playing at a peaceful demonstration. Unidentified men attacked the performers causing a brawl. Uniformed police quickly detained the band’s lead singer Jamal Ali and bassist Natig Kamilov.

Ali and Kamilov allege that they were badly beaten by police during their detention. Bulistan is known for its political protest songs and had previously participated in opposition demonstrations. They were later sentenced in closed trials to administrative detention on charges of petty hooliganism.

More recently, on 18 April 2012, Idrak Abbasov, a reporter for newspaper Zerkalo and the Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety (IRFS) was among several journalists attacked by security guards working for the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic in the Binagady district of Baku. They were reporting on and filming the demolition of houses by the company.  The guards seized Abbasov’s camera and repeatedly kicked him. The journalist was left with severe trauma to his right eye and concussion. He was unconscious for several hours after the incident and had to be hospitalised.

IPGA is calling on the organiser of the Eurovision Song Contest, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), to hold the authorities accountable for their actions. Its petition urges the singers attending the contest to show support for the protection of human rights and civil liberties in Azerbaijan. Index on Censorship has also launched an online petition urging President Aliyev to protect Azerbaijani citizens’ right to free speech.

Originally published in the Independent