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.

Peter Fray

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