Eurovision is a multi-national competition that pits singers from various European countries against each other. Eventually, one country wins the whole prize. Last year Azerbaijan won the contest, which means that this year it will host the Eurovision finale. This year, finalists include Lithuania, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Serbia and Malta.
With the arrival of reporters, camera crews and travelers for the big event, set to be held on May 26, the nearly complete lack of human rights protections in Azerbaijan has become glaringly apparent. Officials’ fears of a gay pride parade coinciding with the Eurovision finale illustrate the glaring lack of support for the LGBT community in Azerbaijan. As International Lesbian and Gay Association Europe notes, “Azerbaijan does not have any provision against discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity in the fields of employment and occupation.”
But human rights violations also stretch into total absences of freedom of assembly and free speech. This month prisoners, who had been jailed last year after another anti-government protest, began a hunger strike which they threatened to continue until the end of the Eurovision contest. Amnesty International states that the government released Elnur Majidi in response to the hunger strike, but the 11 hunger strikers remain imprisoned.
A vast number of opposition and independent journalists have also been jailed, often on trumped up or bogus charges. Last year, opposition journalist Jabbar Savalanli was arrested on false drug charges and forced to write a confession, reports Human Rights Watch. This year he was forcibly conscripted into the army, despite being exempt from service, reports Amnesty International. The attempts at silencing oppositional media reflect a fear of uprisings such as those seen in Egypt and Libya in recent years.
The country has little to no opposition leadership or party formations at this stage. As the Economist notes, the opposition is basically “an ageing and exhausted generation… shrunk to nothing more than ‘dissident’ clubs.” With a lack of political options, rallies and protests are quickly shut down, protesters hidden from view and dispersed.
Two rallies this week, meant to stir attention regarding the appalling human rights record in Azerbaijan, were quickly shut down. 100 people gathered in the capital of Baku on Monday and were speedily dispersed. More than 30 protesters were forced into waiting police vans on Thursday after gathering again to protest the government’s refusal to grant freedom of speech and assembly.
The protesters also spoke out against the complete control of media outlets in the country. The European Union called for the release of six jailed journalists in the wake of the upcoming Eurovision finale. European leaders also lamented the complete lack of justice for mistreated journalists, including the outright beating of Idrak Abbassov, according to the Guardian.
Even with international scrutiny from Amnesty International and leaders of the European Union aimed directly at President Ilham Aliyev’s strict government, little looks to change.
The Crystal Hall, an extravagant arena where the final Eurovision contest will be held, was constructed in an area where families once lived. These families were forcibly evicted to make room for the showy building. Perhaps officials hope to steer attention away from the bloody, tense and unpleasant atmosphere in the country. Although the government does not look to change any policy in the near future, the intense scrutiny pinned on the country during this popular contest may work to drive more attention to the overall lack of human rights plaguing the population.
Photo Credit: Indrek Galetin