In just two months’ time, the Eurovision Song Contest will take place in Azerbaijan. The country will no doubt warmly welcome voices from across Europe to a luxurious stage, and put on a great show for the 125 million people expected to watch. But right now, the Azerbaijani authorities are sending a very different message to their own citizens: critical voices are not welcome and will be punished.
In the latest startling display of disregard for basic human rights, it is musicians who have felt the force of the authorities’ displeasure. On Saturday, 1,500 young people attended a peaceful rally in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, to call for an end to corruption in state education and the release of political prisoners. During a performance at the protest, singer Jamal Ali swore and insulted the President’s mother. He, his band’s bass player Natig Kamilov, and the event organizer Etibar Salmanli, were then arrested. Eyewitnesses say that the two musicians were savagely beaten by police.
All three activists, who are in their mid-20s, have been charged with “petty hooliganism” and ordered to spend between 5 and 10 days in detention. Usually, people given this sentence are transferred to a corrective detention facility, but Jamal, Natig and Etibar are still being held in police custody, and are not being allowed access to their lawyer or families. This, together with the fact that the two musicians said at their court hearing that they had been beaten again at the police station, makes us fear that the activists might be tortured.
This incident follows hot on the heels of another similar assault earlier this month, in which police in Baku beat up five youth activists and arrested 17 people. Their ‘crime’? Protesting about reports that two prisoners of conscience had been beaten up by prison guards. One of those beaten and briefly detained was 20-year-old Jabbar Savalan, who is no stranger to the punishment meted out to those who speak up. Jabbar was one of 17 people arrested in connection with a wave of protests in March and April last year. Following an Amnesty campaign, Jabbar and two others have now been released, but 14 prisoners of conscience remain behind bars and we are continuing to campaign for their freedom.
Imprisonment and police beatings are not the only consequences for those who criticise authority figures in Azerbaijan. Just last week we were appalled to learn that the situation had reached a new low, when a secret sex video was used in a despicable campaign to discredit Khadija Ismayilova, a reporter investigating claims of links between the President’s family and a lucrative construction project in Baku.
Still, at least the authorities know they have a problem. Responding to a recent article in The Observer, the Azerbaijani Ambassador to the UK wrote “We are aware that there is a long way to go and are strongly committed to strengthening our democracy and human rights record.” Let’s hope we start seeing evidence of those words being put into action soon. After all, it really shouldn’t be too difficult to stop locking people up or attacking them simply for expressing their views, should it? If you agree, please join us in calling on the President of Azerbaijan to release all prisoners of conscience and investigate police violence against peaceful protesters.
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