The Irish Times
Saturday, March 31, 2012

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EUROPE'S BIGGEST human rights organisations have criticised calls
for a boycott of May's Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan, while
noting concerns about civil liberties in the country.

International campaign groups have reproached Azerbaijan this month for
the sometimes violent arrest of protesters, journalists and musicians
who joined or reported on demonstrations against the authorities,
adding weight to appeals for a boycott from some Azeri dissidents.

Human Rights Watch has also accused Azerbaijan of forcibly evicting
dozens of families from areas that are being redeveloped before

Reporters Without Borders, meanwhile, has condemned what it called a
"despicable" smear campaign against a journalist who says intimate
images of her were posted online to deter her from investigating
corruption among Azerbaijan's ruling elite.

The Continent's foremost rights and democracy watchdogs - the Council
of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe
- oppose a boycott of Eurovision, however.

"I am concerned with the situation in Azerbaijan regarding freedom of
expression, but the Eurovision Song Contest is an opportunity to have
a debate and raise these concerns," Thorbjorn Jagland, the secretary
general of the 47-nation Council of Europe, told The Irish Times.

Sitting alongside him at the Vienna headquarters of the 56-state OSCE
- which Ireland is chairing this year - was the group's like-minded
media freedom chief, Dunja Mijatovic.

"We should not be closing doors. On the contrary, our organisations
should be door-openers in a society where we see problems. Any boycott
would be a restriction of free speech from the other side," she said.

"Azerbaijan is high on the agenda of my office," she added. "We
do have concerns and there are problems on a daily basis, there is
harassment on a daily basis." Azerbaijan ranks 152nd of 178 nations
in a media freedom list compiled by Reporters Without Borders, which
also calls President Ilham Aliyev a "predator of press freedom".

He has run the ex-Soviet state since the death in 2003 of his father
Heydar Aliyev, who dominated Azeri politics for decades. Despite
persistent complaints about rigged elections and human rights
violations, the oil-rich state bordering on Russia, Iran and Turkey
enjoys good relations with the West.

Azerbaijan and neighbouring Armenia fought a war in the early 1990s
over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly ethnic-Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.

They are still at odds over the region, and Armenia has already
withdrawn from the May 22nd-26th Eurovision.