Eurovision can’t drown out the human rights abuses
Last year, thousands of Azerbaijanis spontaneously took to the streets of Baku shouting and chanting. None of the demonstrators were arrested. They were celebrating Azerbaijan’s triumph in the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest.
Only a few weeks earlier, you would have witnessed an entirely different spectacle – partly fascinating, mostly disturbing, entirely incomprehensible. The Azerbaijani government’s response to demonstrations they don’t agree with.
Teenage girls shouting “freedom!” chased and knocked to the ground by police, manhandled onto buses and driven to the outskirts of town. Elderly men shouting “resign” muffled and gagged. Younger ones punched, kicked and dragged into the back of police vans; facing the prospect of days, months or even years in an Azerbaijani prison cell.
It’s hard to imagine that these peaceful demonstrators represented a threat to a ruling clan entrenched in power since 1993.
The authorities’ reaction appeared to betray a guilty fear – a fear that ordinary Azerbaijanis were no longer prepared to tolerate salaries far below the cost of living while a corrupt leadership accumulates vast wealth at their expense. A fear that, if even just a few people were able to voice their concerns, others would recognise them as legitimate.
What the clampdown certainly did highlight was the Azerbaijani leadership’s inability to accommodate criticism. Hundreds of people attending the rallies were arrested, scores detained for days, and 17 people were sentenced to long prison terms.
Over one year on from the largest protest, on 2 April, many of these demonstrators remain behind bars.
These people have been uprooted from their daily lives, wrenched from their families and locked up in squalid prison cells for over a year, simply because they publicly expressed their unhappiness with the way their government was treating them.
A few weeks ago, 11 of them launched a hunger strike, vowing to continue this until the end of Eurovision.
This crackdown should have been enough to draw widespread condemnation from the international community, and given Eurovision organisers pause for thought following Azerbaijan’s victory at Dusseldorf last May.
But money talks. Oil and gas profits have been poured into an international public relations campaign, seeking to counter criticism of Azerbaijan’s human rights record and portray the country as modern, progressive and democratic.
This portrayal is manifestly false. Despite the government’s wish to be perceived in this way, they have made no effort to improve the environment for free expression in Azerbaijan.
One might have thought that with the Eurovision Contest looming, the Azerbaijani authorities might have cleaned up their act - for a few months at least.
But no. Old habits die hard. Over the past few months Amnesty International has documented a fresh wave of human rights violations in Azerbaijan.
In March, government owned media outlets launched a vicious smear campaign against an independent journalist, following her refusal to be blackmailed into silence.
She had been investigating corruption by the Aliyev family. Unknown individuals had broken into her home to record her having sex, then published the video on the internet. Following international outcry, the government eventually opened an investigation into the invasion of her privacy, but not the attempted blackmail.
Last month, two journalists were hospitalised after beatings by police. Award winning journalist Idrak Abbasov and his female colleague Gunay Musayeva had been trying to film the state oil company’s illegal demolition of houses in a settlement just outside of Baku to make way for a new oilfield.
Another journalist, Anar Bayramli, was arrested on 17 February and accused of possessing heroin. Anar is a devout Muslim who had been producing TV features criticising the government and their preparations for Eurovision. He had previously been called in for questioning on two occasions about his religious and political beliefs.
Despite publicly committing to support free expression in Azerbaijan, the organisation behind Eurovision, the European Broadcasting Union, has simply maintained a deathly silence, giving the government carte blanche to continue violently crushing dissent without consequence.
Amnesty International is calling for more pressure from the international community to stop the vested interests in Azerbaijan repeatedly violating the rights of their citizens.
Increased media coverage during Eurovision will be meaningless if it does not persuade Azerbaijan’s diplomatic and business partners to act in defence of freedom of expression.
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