Friday 25 May 2012 10.00 BST

This year's host city, Baku, has had a makeover but journalists and
activists say that under the surface, life is as grim as ever

Elnur Majidli, a shy 22-year-old Azeri, lowered his voice when he
talked about the time he spent in prison.

He mainly read books to pass the time - 102 in all. "I discovered
George Orwell," he said. "The novel 1984 is the situation we have
in Azerbaijan today. [President Ilham] Aliyev is like Big Brother -
he sees everything, knows everything."

Majidli was released from prison last week after serving half of
a two-year sentence on charges of hooliganism that rights groups
say were politically motivated. Amnesty International named him a
prisoner of conscience, jailed for his participation in opposition
protests against Azerbaijan's all-powerful president. "They wanted
to lessen the pressure a bit because of Eurovision," Majidli said of
his unexpected release. "They wanted to show they're humane."

Azerbaijan's hosting of the Eurovision song contest has thrust the
oil-rich country into the international spotlight.

The very nature of Eurovision, a kitschy pop spectacle in which
competitors representing about 40 countries (of which 26 reach the
final) perform a song live on television, is in stark contrast to
the grim reality of life in Azerbaijan.

The government has poured millions into the capital, Baku, turning it
into a sort of European capital on the Caspian, with grand, illuminated
buildings, a tree-lined boardwalk, and even a fleet of London-style
cabs to ferry visitors around. Yet beneath its marbled exterior,
and just outside the city limits, a different vision emerges - one
where journalists are routinely threatened, human rights activists
pressured and protesters and bloggers who dare to challenge Aliyev
put behind bars.

According to Amnesty, 16 political prisoners remain behind bars in
Azerbaijan. Reporters Without Borders ranks the country near the
bottom of its press freedom index, noting the continuing imprisonment
of five journalists and one blogger, and the unsolved murder last
year of a prominent journalist, Rafig Tagi.

The vast wealth that flowed into the country as oil prices soared and
then peaked in 2008 failed to trickle down to most of the population,
with the average salary standing at 351 manat (285) a month, according
to government statistics. Independent observers say it is much lower,
at just 130 manat a month, on average, for doctors and other state

While Majidli was released, more than a dozen men arrested alongside
him in April 2011 for participating in an anti-Aliyev protest remain
imprisoned and 11 have gone on hunger strike. Majidli was kicked out
of university after his arrest, but vows to continue to challenge
the Aliyev regime. "I'll continue my activities until Azerbaijan has
democracy, human rights and respect for its people," he says.

Aliyev has ruled Azerbaijan since 2003, inheriting the mantle from
his father, Heydar Aliyev, who died months after giving up power.

The elder Aliyev has since become the subject of a state-sponsored
personality cult, lending his name to museums and streets. The
airport is named after him, as is an enormous new cultural centre
designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. Posters bearing his
image compete with adverts for Burberry and Chanel on Baku's spotless
boulevards. There are at least three statues of the late leader in
Baku, and dozens around the country.

His son and daughter-in-law, along with their two daughters, have
been accused by journalists and activists of ruling the country's
politics and economy like a personal fiefdom. A US diplomatic cable
written in early 2010 and leaked by WikiLeaks compared the running of
Azerbaijan to "the feudalism found in Europe during the middle ages".

The government has gone on the offensive to deny accusations of
dictatorship and corruption. "Azerbaijan is not an authoritarian
state - we want to prove this to the whole world," said Ali Hasanov,
an aide to the president. "Is Ilham Aliyev to be blamed because he
is the son of Heydar Aliyev, but got the majority of votes? Is this
not democracy?"

With all television channels and most newspapers under the control of
the state or members of the president's family, activists argue that
it is not a democracy, comparing it to an absolute monarchy instead.

"If we had one normal television channel, there would be an Arab spring
in a minute," said Idrak Abbasov, a leading journalist for Zerkalo,
one of the country's few independent newspapers. Abbasov lay wrapped
in a blanket, his torso in a back brace - the result of a beating
he received last month while covering the continuing demolition of
homes to make way for apartment blocks and villas for the elite.

Other journalists have been blackmailed, with at least three
clandestinely videotaped engaging in sexual acts. Two of the tapes
were broadcast on a television channel owned by the president's
cousin. A third, of Khadija Ismayilova, a journalist for Radio Free
Europe who has spent years investigating the first family's wealth,
was leaked online.

"It's not going to stop me," Ismayilova said. "Those who are stealing
people's money are the ones who should be ashamed."

Hasanov, the Aliyev aide, blamed the video of Ismayilova and beating
of Abbasov on "foreign special services", a commonly used euphemism
for Armenia, Azerbaijan's neighbour, with whom it fought a brutal war
over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh after the breakup of
the Soviet Union. Hasanov likes to remind visitors that Azerbaijan's
army remains on full war footing.

Anti-Armenian propaganda and sentiment continues to run high. During
the 2009 Eurovision, several Azeris who voted for the Armenian
contestant were called in for questioning for posing a "potential
security threat" and being "unpatriotic". Armenia is boycotting
the contest this year. "Sport and cultural events should not be
politicised," Hasanov said.

Baku city centre has been transformed into a Eurovision playground,
with posters advertising the contest adorning every bus, pay phone
and several of the city's new skyscrapers. "Eurovision gives us a
chance to show our city, state and people at their best," Hasanov said.

Yet just outside the city centre, far from the oil wealth poured
into Baku, lies a land where roads are rarely paved. In the suburb
of Balakhani, just 15 miles away, dilapidated houses painted bright
pink and blue stand in stark contrast with their corrugated roofs and
grim surroundings. Children play in the shadows of oil pumps and black
pools filled with rubbish. The sour smell of oil hangs in the air.

"Of course it's dangerous, but what can we do?" said Afag, a
43-year-old mother of three. "They give us water when they want
and have promised to build a rubbish fill. Why haven't they? Ask
the government."

"There has been a huge flow of oil money and a presidential decision
was taken to turn Azerbaijan into Dubai," said Arif Yunus, a human
rights activist at the Institute for Peace and Democracy. "It's like
an Arab monarchy." He accuses the west of ignoring the country's
problems because of the vast riches to be made there. "The situation
in Azerbaijan is worse than in Belarus but the west closes its eyes
to us and even takes part in it sometimes."

With the Eurovision finals nearly upon them, activists find themselves
anxious of the government's reaction once the spotlight on the
country fades.

"I fear there will be a strong crackdown and serious human rights
violations," said Abbasov, the journalist.

"We were all expecting the situation would get better because of
Eurovision," said Ali Novruzov, a prominent blogger. "It didn't -
it's nearly Eurovision and we're in the same situation."