Friday, February 17, 2012

Azerbaijan: Illegal Evictions Ahead of Eurovision

The apartment building at 5 Agil Guliev Street, next to the National Flag Square, is the last building to be demolished to make way for a road and park leading to the Baku Crystal Hall.
© 2012 Human Rights Watch

Source: Human Rights Watch

Halt Wrongful Expropriations, Demolitions
February 17, 2012

(Berlin) – Azerbaijani authorities have begun the forcible eviction of residents to demolish the last standing building in the neighborhood of the capital, Baku, where the 2012 Eurovision song contest is to be held, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should order an investigation into the legality of the municipal authorities’ actions and compensate the evicted residents adequately, in line with national and international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said.

In the morning of February 15, 2012, Baku municipal officials unlawfully evicted some of the remaining handful of families from a 9-story building at 5 Agil Guliyev Street. The building stands at the National Flag Square, with spectacular views of the city and the Caspian Sea. A giant national flag is directly in front of the building, and on the other side of the flag is the construction site for Baku Crystal Hall, where the Eurovision Song Contest is to be held in May.

“Hosting Eurovision means the Azerbaijani government can showcase Baku to thousands of visitors and millions of television viewers,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “However, the event is overshadowed by the illegal evictions, expropriations, and demolitions for hundreds of local residents forced out of their homes.”

Two residents told Human Rights Watch that, since early February, workers have been taking the building apart, starting with the roof, and working their way down. Residents on the 9th floor had already moved out, but on February 15, workers and officials told residents on the 8th and 7th floors that they had to leave. Natalya Alibekova, a resident, told Human Rights Watch that the workers and officials told the family of Rafik Gusseinov, a captain in the Azerbaijani Navy who lived on the 8th floor, that the family had to leave by midday.

The Gusseinov family had entered into the forced sale of their apartment, but the family remained because the sale had not been finalized. Meanwhile, the demolition of the roof and 9th floor caused a giant pipe to fall into Gusseinov’s apartment. Gusseinov, who had celebrated his daughter’s wedding on February 12 in the apartment, had to abandon many of his possessions because he did not have enough time to pack and move.

“I sat and cried with the family,” said Alibekova. “This man gave half his life to his country, and now they’re throwing him out like the last dog.”

The authorities offered Gusseinov 300 manat (approximately US$380), to rent a temporary apartment.

Residents said a large crane stands directly in front of the building, poised for the final demolition. “Panels are falling from the top, and landing everywhere,” Marina Rasulzade, another resident, told Human Rights Watch. “No one has blocked off the area, so it’s very dangerous.”

Rasulzade and her mother are among the approximately 6 families who have remained in the building, which the government expropriated for a beautification project. Rasulzade reluctantly accepted the forced sale of her apartment two weeks ago, but also has remained in the building because the sale has not been finalized.

Development of the National Square Flag Square area, which is in Baku’s Bayil neighborhood, intensified after May 2011, when Azerbaijan won the Eurovision song contest and therefore became the host for the 2012 event. The annual song contest is a televised event featuring music acts from 56 countries in and around Europe.

Several months after May 2011, construction began on the Baku Crystal Hall, a modern, glass-encased arena. According to a February 2011 municipal decree, the building at 5 Agil Guliyev Street is being demolished to transform the area into a “resort zone,” by enlarging and creating new greenery.” In the autumn, other buildings in the area were demolished to make way for a road parallel to the coast that begins in the city center. The road and park presumably will be access points to the arena for visitors.

The authorities stepped up work on these projects after May 2011, and it is anticipated that these projects will be used by visitors who attend the Eurovision Song Contest.

Human Rights Watch contacted the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which oversees the Eurovision Song Contest, regarding the expropriations, forced evictions, and demolitions in the National Flag Square area. The EBU has sought to distance itself, citing the “apolitical” nature of the contest and the government's argument that the construction is not tied to the event.

“Although EBU leaders have been reluctant to see the National Flag Square evictions as relevant to Eurovision, they and the Azerbaijani government want to see a successful song contest not marred by human rights abuses,” Williamson said. “So they should call on the government to end serious violations of human rights taking place in relation to families, homes, and properties near the contest site that risks casting a shadow over the contest.”

Human Rights Watch also urged the national public broadcasters that are EBU affiliate members to call on the EBU to speak up on this issue. In many cases, evictions to clear land for construction on the road were carried out in willful disregard for the dignity, health, and safety of homeowners and residents, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities also failed to provide homeowners with fair compensation based on the market values of properties.

Several residents told Human Rights Watch that in 2010, a district official first told the residents at 5 Agil Guliyev Street that their building would be demolished, but that no further action was taken that year. In February 2011, the residents received a written notice stating that pursuant to the municipal decree, their building would be demolished to make way for beautification projects for the National Flag Square area and that they “should be provided with newly-built residences equal in size, fully renovated, and in the territory of the city of Baku.” The building was home to many military officers and other servicemen and their families.

According to a former resident who asked not to be named, some residents rejected the apartments the municipality first offered because they were in poor condition and far from the city center. When the residents told municipal officials they would agree to be relocated to apartments in analogous buildings on the coast, the official responded “Those are elite buildings, those are for the elite.” The resident wondered aloud, “But who’s the elite then?”

Ultimately, the authorities offered residents monetary compensation at a rate of 1500 manat (approximately US$1,900) per square meter, the flat rate the authorities have offered expropriated homeowners in Baku, regardless of the property’s location, age, state of renovation, or other features.

But under Azerbaijani law, in cases of expropriation the state must provide compensation at a market rate and cover moving, closing, and other costs. Also, there have been no court decisions validating the expropriations and demolitions of the building, as required by Azerbaijan’s constitution.

Many residents at 5 Agil Guliyev rejected government offers and remained in the building. Gradually, these residents moved out because they concluded they had no choice but to accept the forced sale. Heating services were cut by late January, and currently the building is also without water and telephone services. Residents who remained faced risks posed by the demolition of the building around them. In early February, one resident said those remaining had resorted to melting snow to use for water.

One resident said that the resettlement commission recently offered some residents to cover one month’s rent for temporary accommodation while they search for a new home, but not as a matter of policy. “You have to ask them, so it’s scattered. It’s not systematic,” the resident told Human Rights Watch.

Evictions at 5 Agil Guliyev are part of a broader patternof illegal expropriations and demolitions in Baku that have marred the Azerbaijani authorities’ ambitious program of urban renewal in Baku. In the course of this program, begun in 2008, the authorities have illegally expropriated thousands of properties, primarily apartments and homes in middle-class neighborhoods, to be demolished to make way for parks, gardens, roads, and luxury residential buildings.

“These residents are only trying to get what the law owes them: a fair price for their home and a fair assessment process,” Williamson said. “But instead they have faced forced evictions and injustice.”