May 25, 2012

Human rights simply not on song in Azerbaijan

The grand final of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest will be held in the Azerbaijan capital Baku this weekend amidst international turbulence and condemnation. Scott Barnes reports.

The grand final of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest will be held in the Azerbaijan capital Baku this weekend amidst international turbulence and condemnation. President Ilham Aliyev’s authoritarian government has come under the international spotlight, accused by human rights organisations of violently oppressing its citizens. Amnesty reported this month that the Aliyev regime unleashed a violent crackdown on freedom of expression in the lead-up to Eurovision, which hasn’t abated. Human Rights Watch reported this week that Azerbaijan police had violently dispersed two peaceful protests. The protesters were calling for freedom, less corruption and for the resignation of President Aliyev. Aliyev said that the people of oil-rich Azerbaijan were free, in a recent speech to his cabinet: "We have democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom of assembly." The President said that Azerbaijanis had the right to freedom of assembly as long as they "conduct their activities where the mayor's office has indicated to them". Aliyev, who presided over elections in 2010 that were "neither free nor fair", according to Freedom House, joined Barack Obama and Julia Gillard at the NATO summit in Chicago this week. In further drama, neighbouring Iran recalled its Azerbaijan ambassador in protest to a so-called "gay parade", which was reportedly planned to coincide with the contest. Sodomy is punishable by death in devoutly religious Iran. The Iranian Ambassador Mohammad Bagher Bahrami left Baku on Monday as participants representing 42 countries arrived for the popular, annual competition, which Azerbaijani pop duo Ell and Nikki won in 2011. Tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan have increased this year after Baku announced a billion-dollar arms deal with Israel. While 90% of Azerbaijan citizens identify as Muslim, Eurovision claims the country is one of the most liberal, secular Islamic nations, despite its questionable human rights record. On Tuesday Azerbaijan arrested 11 people for spreading "anti-Eurovision" Islamist literature. Roland Kobia, the European Union's ambassador to Azerbaijan, told AzerNews that the modernisation that has occurred in the capital before the contest was an impressive demonstration of strong political will. But he was vaguer about human rights freedoms in the country. "In the pyramid of human beings’ aspirations in today’s world, self-fulfilment and freedom are as important as progress in material comfort. I trust this is the next step," he said. Freedom of the press is virtually non-existent in Azerbaijan, with journalists often jailed for critical reporting about the Aliyev regime. Ten journalists and bloggers are currently in jail in Azerbaijan on "spurious charges". In 2011 blogger, journalist and member of the political opposition Tural Abbasli was brutally beaten and jailed for "organising public disorder". In 2007 outspoken newspaper editor Eynulla Fatullayev was jailed on "trumped-up" charges, according to Amnesty. US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks in 2010 state that Aliyev is thin-skinned and overreacts when confronted with a "challenge to his authority or affronts to his family dignity". The classified cable calls Aliyev’s leadership "iron-fisted" and his domestic policies "authoritarian and hostile to diversity of political views". The tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran have been simmering for many years. Some Iranian Azerbaijanis believe a part of north Iran should be recognised as Azerbaijan territory.

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2 thoughts on “Human rights simply not on song in Azerbaijan

  1. Blair Martin

    It wouldn’t be Eurovision without at least one political spat! Last year the Belarus singer, Anastasiya Vinnikova (of the lovely schlager-pounding “I Love Belarus”) was pointedly asked in a post-rehearsal press conference about the dictatorial rule of President Aleksandr Lukashenko and her glare at the reporter could be felt back in Minsk!

    This year Armenia, who are still spatting with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, refused to sing from the same song sheet and pulled out (and incurred the wrath of the European Broadcasting Union who run Eurovision).

    During yesterday’s post 2nd semi-final presser, the Swedish entrant, Loreen, was asked about her reported visit to protest groups in Baku and her stated support for a more open society. The MC of the press conference (who is Mr Law and Order personified, last year the Germans had two people to run the press conferences, this year, just one will do thank you and he is in firm command) swiftly tried to shut down the question and responses, much to the howls of protest from everyone else in the packed room.

    It was always going to be risky staging a contest like this in a country like Azerbaijan (the questions fired at the hapless winners “Ell & Nikki” last year from journalists about LGBTQI rights in Azerbaijan set the scene particularly for an event which is definitely “gay heaven”), though no less risky than Moscow in 2009 or Belgrade the year before. And the way things are looking at the time of writing, it might be headed back there in 2013, which will be interesting in light of the election of Tomislav Nikolic a hard-right nationalist politician as the new Serbian President, though he apparently wants to shed his more reactionary past & image and be a “good European”, lead his nation and govern for “all the people” (and we know how well that works when politicians say they will govern “for all”, eh, CanDo Newman?).

    Eurovision – the event that is “…football for the people that don’t like football…” is just as political as everything else that involves countries competing against one another.

  2. AR

    A small point – only male-on-male sodomy per se is forbidden in Iran. The old Ayatollah, in his risible Green Book, gave it the OK if the anus was a, female, wife.

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