As the world turns its attention to Azerbaijan for the Eurovision Song Contest, police crack down on dissent.
While singers posed for the cameras and warmed up for the semi-finals of the Eurovision Song Contest at the Crystal Hall stadium, police violently cracked down on opposition protests in central Baku.
Over 100 demonstrators, chanting slogans demanding freedom and the release of political prisoners, congregated by Icheri Sheher metro station and began to march towards the mayor’s office. Minutes later, police linked arms and moved into the crowd, pushing, kicking and beating protesters, detaining around twelve people.
Video footage shows police violently dragging men and women into a bus with some being beaten with truncheons. They were first taken to a nearby police station, before being driven to Gobustan, a district one hour outside the capital, and left to make their own way home.
Activist Abulfaz Qurbanli said: “When the police started to push us around, we told them to be polite and treat us with respect but this only made them more violent. I was beaten once on the street and then again when we were forced onto the bus.”
The Eurovision usually attracts an audience of over 120 million viewers and the Azerbaijan government has been keen to make the most of the event to promote itself on the world stage, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the festivities.
Similarly, opposition groups are using the opportunity to inform international media about the country’s dire human rights record. Local activists have set up a campaign called “Sing for Democracy” to ensure that the political situation receives the same coverage as the music. They have pledged to hold numerous protests throughout the contest to highlight the government’s continuing repression, despite receiving menacing warnings from authorities to desist.
Today’s actions by the police were tame in comparison to previous public gatherings. Political dissent is rarely tolerated in the oil-rich, post-Soviet nation. The government has a stranglehold on the media and critical voices are regularly harassed, defamed and blackmailed. In April, Index award-winning journalist Idrak Abbasov was beaten into a coma by security personnel from the state oil company Socar for filming the demolition of houses in his village. Radio Free Liberty reporter Khadija Ismayilova made international headlines when she exposed a lurid attempt to silence her using footage of her having sex, captured by a secret camera installed in her house.
On the other side of town, as demonstrators were being violently dispersed, senior presidential official Ali Hasanov used a press conference to rail against Western media and human rights groups for waging “an anti-Azerbaijan campaign.”
“I want to say that if these organisations continue (acting) in the same way, they will risk losing the Azerbaijani people’s trust.”
Lucrative oil contracts between Azerbaijan and European nations ensure that condemnation by governments is kept to a minimum. The small and relatively unknown Caucasus nation is anxiously hoping to boost its image in front of the world’s media by hosting the glitzy ceremony but contrasting photos of police brutality may bring Azerbaijan some unwanted attention.
Pictures by Mehman Huseynov, from the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS)