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Eurovision Does Little To Help Human Rights In Azerbaijan

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  • Eurovision Does Little To Help Human Rights In Azerbaijan

    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."