Thursday, March 08, 2012

Azerbaijan: As host of 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, Baku should let all voices be heard

Source: IFEX

On 26 May, Azerbaijan gets to play host to one of the most watched non-sporting events in the world, the Eurovision song contest. The popular competition - which gave birth to ABBA - pits artists from 56 European countries vying to release the next big hit in front of an expected 100 million television viewers.

But IFEX members, other rights groups and local activists are using the event to point out the story behind the voices that Eurovision will bring to the capital, Baku: the critical voices at home that are not tolerated. They want to let you know that in Azerbaijan, protests are banned, and singing, writing or speaking out could land you in jail. And that to make way for the arena that will host the event, dozens of families have been evacuated.

Avaz Zeynalli, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper "Khural", is a journalist who knows firsthand how far Azerbaijan will go to cover up the story. According to the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan (IPGA), a coalition of 20 international groups working to promote and protect freedom of expression in Azerbaijan, Zeynalli is serving pre-trial detention on trumped-up charges of extortion and bribery, based solely on the unsubstantiated claim by a parliamentary deputy. He faces up to 12 years in prison if convicted.

Then there's Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, the blogger and civic activist who was sentenced to two years in jail on charges of evading military service after he took part in organising a pro-democracy protest in March 2011. At least 15 other political activists were given lengthy prison sentences for organising protests inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings last year, says IPGA, which includes a number of IFEX members.

Just last week, thousands of protesters calling for a local governor's resignation clashed with riot police in the northeastern city of Quba, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). At least two journalists were injured and another five suffered the effects of tear gas while covering the fighting.

The international partnership also points out that this month marks the seven-year anniversary of the murder of iconic editor Elmar Huseynov, and still not a single person has been charged for the crime.

IFEX's member in Azerbaijan, the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS), says it has been the subject of a smear campaign in state media, primarily driven by IRFS's involvement in the Sing for Democracy campaign to support human rights in Azerbaijan ahead of the song contest.

Articles in three different papers accused IRFS of acting in "radical opposition" to state interests, including misappropriating grant money to fund the political opposition, and inciting and organising protests.

Meanwhile, as the government tries to transform tries to transform its capital, Baku, into a "glittering, Dubai-style city" in time for the contest finale, it is illegally evicting and demolishing homes that stand in its way, says Human Rights Watch.

In one neighbourhood, dozens of families have been forcibly evicted - sometimes without warning or in the middle of the night - to make way for a modern, glass-encased arena that the European Song Contest will inaugurate, a Human Rights Watch investigation found.

Homes have been torn down while the owners' possessions were still inside. And when residents refused to leave, authorities forced them out by cutting off electricity and water or removing the building's windows, says Human Rights Watch. Some evicted residents told Human Rights Watch that the government offered them nominal payments, but the offers didn't begin to cover the value of their homes.

"Eurovision gives the government an opportunity to showcase Baku to thousands of visitors and millions of television viewers," said Human Rights Watch. "But instead, Azerbaijan's government is showcasing its disregard for human rights by forcing people from their homes steps away from the contest site. With heightened visibility there will be more scrutiny, so it's in the government's interest to change its course."

The European Liberal Democrats, which has been monitoring these and other rights abuses over the years in Azerbaijan, are calling for the release of all political prisoners before Europe comes to Baku. "How can we joyfully and light-heartedly sing about love and freedom while a few kilometres further people sit in prison because they exercised their right to demonstrate and speak in public?" said European MP Graham Watson.

You can urge the government to release all political prisoners ahead of Eurovision by signing the European Liberals' petition here.