Azerbaijan has detained leading pro-democracy activists in central Baku just days before the former Soviet republic comes under the global spotlight for hosting the Eurovision song contest.
“Azerbaijan sent an ominous message about the government’s commitment to fundamental freedoms as the police violently dispersed two peaceful protests,” Human Rights Watch said today. “Police rounded up dozens of peaceful demonstrators, forcing them onto buses and beating many of them in the process.”
“Azerbaijan has also come under fire from some Western NGOs for its human-rights record and for the pace of democratic change,” but its democracy “remains a work in progress,” claims Elmar Mammadyarov, the country’s foreign minister.
“Each parliamentary and presidential election has been an improvement over its predecessor. Opposition newspapers can and do now criticize the government on a daily basis,” he writes in the Wall Street Journal.
“A survey conducted last year by Populus, the British polling company, showed that 70% of Azerbaijanis believe that their country has improved in terms of freedom and democracy over the last 15 years, while nearly 80% supported the general direction of policy.”
But local activists dispute the regime’s claims and plan to use the Eurovision contest to highlight the government’s poor rights record.
The song contest “must be yet another tool to promote Azerbaijan’s European integration, first of all through the improvement of the situation with human rights,” says Rasul Jafarov, of Sing for Democracy.
“Ever since the Azerbaijani duo Ell and Nikki walked away with the top prize at the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest, the country has been preparing to host this year’s homage to kitsch, tight shirts and sequins with a seriousness more befitting a G20 summit,” Courtney Weaver writes from Baku:
To the government, for nearly two decades the fiefdom of the late Heydar Aliev and now his son Ilham, Eurovision is a chance to push the Caspian country into the limelight and promote both tourism and its bid to host the 2020 summer Olympics… [But] local activists claim hundreds of Baku residents were removed from their homes illegally to make way for new construction projects, including the Eurovision concert hall.
“When else can we make noise? Eurovision is it – at no other time would anyone pay attention to us,” says Nurija Halikova, who was kicked out of her home in downtown Baku and given compensation that she says was no more than two-thirds the market price.
Afag Ismayilova, a doctor similarly forced out of her home earlier this year, says the president’s family “has palaces everywhere. And what do I have? I had one home that they destroyed, even though I had two court injunctions in my hand”.
The “Sing for Democracy” campaign is funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.