By Jane Smith*
In the build-up to the Eurovision Song Contest last May, an unusual amount of media attention was paid to the state of human rights in Azerbaijan. For this small country in the South Caucasus, coveted energy supplies have been both a friend and foe. The oil and gas interest has made European politicians markedly soft on the government, despite a human rights record which leaves much to be desired.
Eleven years after Azerbaijan’s acceptance to the Council of Europe, two major rights issues stand out: the forced evictions faced by inhabitants of four Baku neighbourhoods – victims of the government’s desire to turn Azerbaijan’s capital into a modern metropolis in the image of Dubai – and the lack of freedom of expression, which puts anti-establishment media and activists at serious risk. Now that the Eurovision spectacle is over, the spotlight should remain on these issues, and the European community should put pressure on the Azerbaijani government to address them.
According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released last February, since 2008, home owners have been forcibly evicted from four Baku neighbourhoods without adequate warning or fair compensation. One of these neighbourhoods, Bayil, is home to the Baku Crystal Hall, the venue where the Eurovision Song Contest took place. Mindful that this neighbourhood would be scrutinized by the international media, the government’s determination to develop it became even more resolute.
Several hundred residents were kicked out of their homes to make way for a new road and park. Zarifa Aliyeva, a 47-year-old woman who lived in the Bayil neighbourhood, told HRW that she was woken up one morning by the sound of a bulldozer demolishing her apartment building. Given barely enough time to gather their belongings, Zarifa and her family were forced to leave their home. Now they live in a one-bedroom apartment. When government urban regeneration programmes clash with the rights and economic interests of normal citizens, there is evidence that the latter suffer.
Recently, the Council of Europe has put pressure on the Azerbaijani government to stop using imprisonment as a tool for political retaliation by opening up the issue for public debate. Though this undoubtedly represents a step in the right direction, for some of Azerbaijan’s outspoken journalists, it may seem like too little too late. Khadija Ismailova, an investigative journalist who has been highly critical of the government, would have reason to be disillusioned with the Europeans.
In March 2012, Ismailova was the victim of a blackmail campaign in which intimate footage of her and her boyfriend – recorded by a secret camera placed in her bedroom – was posted on the internet. In a country where honour killings still take place, this vicious campaign was not only a grave violation of privacy, but potentially exposed Ismailova to great danger. Unfortunately, she is not the first or the last government critic to face intimidation. After making a Youtube video in which they mocked the Azerbaijani government’s decision to import two donkeys from Germany, Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli – the so-called ‘Donkey Bloggers’ – were slammed with two-year prison sentences. A dozen journalists and activists are still locked up in the country’s jails, and many more face threats from the authorities which make their work virtually impossible.
The Azerbaijani government managed to keep the pro-democracy protests inspired by the Arab Spring under the international radar. However, in the long run, it is unlikely that they will be able to silence the chorus of anti-regime voices.
[*] The name has been changed.