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Eurovision and human rights: All eyes are on Azerbaijan.
Aserbaidschan Flagge Fahne Baku.Image: picture-alliance/dpa

All eyes on Baku

May 17, 2012

The Eurovision Song Contest will be taking place in Azerbaijan at the end of May. Human rights activists want to use the event to bring international attention to democratic shortfalls in the country.


Markus Löning is enraged. "The last really shocking case that I experienced was with a journalist I know, and who was put under pressure," the German government's Human Rights Commissioner said. The journalist in question was Khadija Ismailova. The respected Azerbaijani journalist had to learn the hard way what happens when you start to research reports critical of the government in Baku.

In the beginning of March 2012, Ismailova received an anonymous letter. It contained explicit photographs of her and her boyfriend that were evidently taken in her own apartment with the use of a hidden camera. A note was attached to the package: "Behave yourself, slut. Otherwise you will be defamed."

Markus Löning hopes that the human rights situation in Azerbaijan can be improved.
Markus Löning hopes that the human rights situation in Azerbaijan can be improved.Image: picture-alliance/dpa

However, Ismailova continued with her research and published the threatening letter. One week later, a secretly filmed intimate video her and her boyfriend was released on the internet. The judicial authorities refused to clarify the situation. The Free Democratic Party (FPD) politician Löning called it "unacceptable."

"Singing for democracy"

Human rights activists want to push cases such as these into the foreground at this year's Eurovision Song Contest on May 26 in the Azerbaijani capital Baku. "The contest isn't just about Azerbaijan's culture and history, it's about basic human rights such as freedom of opinion or assembly," said Rasul Jafarov at a press conference by the human rights organization Reporters Without Borders in mid-April in Berlin.

Together with a number of other activists, Jafarov started the "Sing for Democracy" campaign in 2011. Jafarov said he intends to bring Europe's attention to the situation in Azerbaijan with t-shirts and placards.

The Ismailova case is only the most recent example, said Hugh Williamson, the director for Europe and Central Asia at the human rights organization Human Rights Watch. Six journalists are currently in prison in Azerbaijan, an increase on the previous year.

Hugh Williamson says Azerbaijani government press officers seek to intimidate journalists.
Hugh Williamson says Azerbaijani government press officers seek to intimidate journalists.Image: Raum11/Jan Michalko

Williamson said Azerbaijani Justice Department press officers seek to intimate people: "A journalist who works for the Iranian media was asked to go to a police station to answer a few questions. There he was told to remove his jacket. He then went into another room. When he returned, he found a small amount of drugs in his jacket."

Dozens of political prisoners

But it is not only the curtailing of press freedom that human rights activists such as Williamson criticize. According to non-governmental organizations, dozens of political prisoners currently sit in Azerbaijani jails.

The freedom of assembly has also been heavily restricted for years, reported Leyla Aliyeva, director of the Center for National and International Studies in Baku.

"Every attempt to protest is suppressed by the government," Aliyeva said.

Just two weeks before the Eurovision song Contest final, dozens of opposition politicians attempted to demonstrate in the center of the capital. The police ended the unauthorized demonstration within a matter of minutes. According to media reports, around 10 people were arrested.

Even "approved" protests run the same way. For the first time for a long time, an opposition demonstration was approved to take place on the outskirts of Baku. Sixteen participants were arrested. Appeals from Western governments for the release of the prisoners were ignored by the Azerbaijani government.

Quiet criticism

Instead of improvements to the situation prior to the Eurovision Song Contest, human rights activists assert that situation has actually worsened. But they hope that the pressure on the government will not be entirely inconsequential. "We are hoping for a long-term effect," said Löning.

Quiet criticism: Guido Westerwelle met with President Ilham Aliyev in March.
Quiet criticism: Guido Westerwelle met with President Ilham Aliyev in March.Image: picture-alliance/dpa

That the authoritarian Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev feels this pressure was observed by the German politician during a joint visit with Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in March 2012. Löning openly criticized the human rights situation in Azerbaijan and was consequently the subject of an indirect verbal attack from the Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadjarov.

The Human Rights Commissioner of the German Republic was accused of being an "inappropriate" mentor by the Azerbaijani diplomat. His German colleague Westerwelle avoided reports in the German press openly critical of the government in Baku, with which Berlin has strong economic interests.

Hoping for political change

The West is reluctant to denunciate human rights abuses in Azerbaijan, said political scientist Ljla Alijeva. The protection of economic interests is the main reason for that. Large oil reserves make Azerbaijan an attractive trade partner, meaning criticism from both the EU and the US remains quiet, Alijeva added.

Human rights activists are demanding that Western governments remind Azerbaijan of its responsibilities, for example, with regard to the terms of the European Council, more strongly than they have to date. That also applies to the 46 verdicts reached by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, said Löning. The majority of cases relate to constraints placed on press freedom or the excessive use of force by the police, according to the German politician. To date, Baku has not implemented any changes following the verdicts.

The General Secretary of the European Council, Thorbjörn Jagland, made his concerns regarding democratic shortfalls in Azerbaijan public in an interview. But he said he was against boycotting the event. A dialogue with the Azerbaijani authorities would be more effective, said Jagland.

Author: Roman Goncharenko / hw
Editor: Sean Sinico

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