As preparations for the Eurovision Song contest gear up, one local human rights activist wants the spotlight on human rights abuses in Azerbaijan. A second song contest might do just that - if authorities let it happen.
Rasul Jafarov is a human rights activist from Baku, Azerbaijan. He has worked for democratic reforms in the country since 2005 and appeals for the release of political prisoners. He has organized several demonstrations and flash mobs in public places. Now he is the organizer of the "Sing for Democracy" campaign, which plans to use the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest to draw attention to human rights abuses in Azerbaijan.
He talked to DW about the campaign as well as how he expects the human rights situation to evolve in Azerbaijan after the song contest.
DW: Were you pleased when Azerbaijan won the Eurovision Song Contest last year?
Rasul Jafarov: Yes, I was very pleased. Especially because it meant some international attention would finally be focused on my country. We human rights activists have long discussed how we can best use the ESC for our own purposes because it is not simply a cultural event. That's how we came up with the campaign "Sing for Democracy."
It's an alternative contest you called into life to protest human rights violations in the country. How are the preparations going?
On May 20 we want to hold a music party. Bands and singers have already confirmed that they'll be coming - including some musicians from Germany. At the moment we are waiting for approval of our outdoor event. We have sent in the application to the city of Baku. But they told us that they are not responsible for such events and sent us to the Culture Ministry. We are also supposed to apply for permission from the national Eurovision organizing committee, and we have done that as well.
Do you think you will receive permission for the event?
Honestly, I do not think that we will receive permission for an outdoor event. But we have a Plan B: we'll go to the city's nightclubs to hold the Sing for Democracy music party. But they'll also try to prevent us from doing that. There is no step the people in power are not willing to take.
You're not scared of being arrested?
Demonstrators have been taking to the streets of Baku for years - like this protester ahead of elections in 2005
I am. I have been arrested four times. The last time was in March 2011. They wanted to gag me so I wouldn't speak against the president, so I wouldn't participate in demonstrations and be actively engaged. If I didn't stop they would have other ways of putting me in prison - they would accuse me of dealing drugs or being violent.
The ESC starts soon. Hundreds of journalists will be coming. Isn't the state worried about all the media attention?
Yes, the government is scared. That's why they want to muzzle journalists and human rights activists. And they are also engaging in campaigns to smear the countries that publicly discuss the human rights situation in Azerbaijan. There's a campaign at the moment aimed at Germany. Films from World War II are being shown and films about homeless and poor people in Germany. Sex shops are being shown to portray how women's rights are violated. It's all so crazy and shows how powerless Azerbaijan's government actually is against international reporting.
What is going to happen after the song contest? Will the situation change for the better?
The majority of people here don't think so. I don't think there will be noticeable changes. I even think that it will become even more difficult for the opposition. But the government is tripping itself up when it comes to human rights in the country. In October 2013 there will be a presidential election and more and more people who in 2003 and 2008 voted for President Aliyev have openly said they won't do it a third time.
Azerbaijan is an important trade partner for European countries, particularly because it is rich in oil and gas reserves. What's your view of how western states treat Azerbaijan?
Many countries simply close their eyes. They appeal for democratic values but are not actually interested in human rights. We expect much more support from Europe and the western world. We are not demanding that these countries stop their oil and gas business with Azerbaijan, but if they are going to cooperate economically with Azerbaijan then they should also be more engaged in human rights concerns.
What will you do after the ESC? Are you planning to stay in the country?
I do not want to leave my country. I know that many people already have - often because of political pressure. But I am going to stay. In November the Internet Governance Forum is being held in Baku and we want to use it to again bring attention to grievances in the country.
Interview: Rayna Breuer / sms
Editor: Ben Knight