(Moscow) - The Azerbaijani authorities should immediately halt illegal expropriations, forcible evictions, and home demolitions in the capital, Baku, in the name of "beautification," Human Rights Watch said today. The government should compensate people already forced out of their homes, Human Rights Watch said. On June 13, 2011, police surrounded a building slated for demolition that is occupied by human rights groups after activists tried to publicly protest against the destruction campaign.
In a letter sent to President Ilham Aliyev and the Baku City Executive Authority, the mayor's office, on June 10, 2011, Human Rights Watch called on the president to intervene to suspend the Baku mayor's effort to expropriate and demolish hundreds of private homes and businesses in the city center. The two-year demolition campaign has cost hundreds - and possibly thousands - of homeowners and residents their homes and resulted in widespread violations of private property rights, Human Rights Watch said.
"With its so-called ‘beautification' project, the Azerbaijani government isn't just destroying homes in Baku, it's destroying people's lives," said Jane Buchanan, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The Azerbaijani authorities need to put an immediate halt to forced expropriations, evictions, and demolitions in Baku."
The Baku mayor's office began the expropriation campaign in 2009 to build a "garden-park complex" among other construction projects, as part of a "reconstruction" program. Human Rights Watch interviewed numerous property owners whose properties in Baku have been expropriated and demolished or soon will be.
The June 13 incident began after the owners and tenants of a building slated for demolition painted a message on the exterior walls: "This is private property and the destruction of this house violates the Constitution, and the European Convention on Human Rights." The police demanded that they stop writing on the walls and dispersed only after several representatives of diplomatic missions came to the aid of the tenants.
The building, at 38-1 and 2 Shamsi Badalbeili Street, is owned by Leyla Yunus, a leading human rights defender in Azerbaijan, and her husband, Arif. Among the groups with offices there are Yunus' Institute for Peace and Democracy, the Azerbaijani Campaign to Ban Landmines, a member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines coalition, and the only women's crisis center in Baku.
"The human rights organizations provide crucial legal and other support to women in crisis and others, and their capacity to serve victims is strongly linked to their ability to use the Yunus' property," Buchanan said. "The government should immediately halt its plan to demolish this building and stop trying to intimidate Leyla Yunus and her colleagues." Other residents of Shamsi Badalbeili Street and neighboring streets told Human Rights Watch on June 13 that heavy machinery is being used to demolish buildings on the street and that property owners received warnings in recent days to vacate their homes within days.
In numerous cases in various sections of the city center, residents said that the authorities have begun to tear down apartment buildings while property owners who refused to agree to the government's compensation or resettlement offers remained in their apartments. In some of these cases, court cases challenging the demolitions and expropriations were pending.
One woman told Human Rights Watch that the authorities removed the roof of a three-storey apartment building, forcing out residents of the third floor, then several months later returned to force out apartment owners on the first and second floors.
In November 2010, police forced eight residents out of their apartments, with some still in pajamas and slippers, and detained them in a police station for nine hours, while workers removed all personal items from the apartments. Bulldozers began demolishing the building later that day. When the residents went to a warehouse to collect their property, they found many of their possessions damaged or ruined, and jewelry or other valuables missing.
"The authorities are showing an astonishing disregard for the safety and well-being of home owners and their families or for basic human dignity by destroying buildings where people are living and destroying or ruining their personal property," Buchanan said. "The authorities' recklessness appears to be an extreme attempt at coercing people to relent to meager compensation offers and move out."
The Baku authorities designated a private individual, Rufan Kiazimov, as the sole person authorized to purchase many of the properties, forcing homeowners to conclude a real estate transaction with him. The government has transferred funds to Kiazimov from the national oil company, the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR), to finance these transactions.
Compensation in many cases is far below market value for property in central Baku. The price Kiazimov pays for all properties is based on the authorities' designated single price of 1,500 manat (US$1,900) per square meter, irrespective of a property's use, age, condition, or any other factors. Independent appraisals have valued properties in central Baku at 4,000 manat (US$ 5,065) per square meter or in some cases even more.
Seeing how those who have refused compensation or resettlement have been forcibly evicted and left homeless in many cases, other property owners have felt compelled to accept the authorities' largely inadequate offers, Human Rights Watch said.
There is no basis for the expropriations in Azerbaijani law, which guarantees the right to private property and allows the state to expropriate property only in limited cases, such as for national defense, roads, or communications infrastructure. Expropriations must also be based on a court order.
Human Rights Watch called on the government to stop the expropriations and demolitions immediately and to compensate people who have been forcibly evicted and whose homes have already been expropriated at less than market value. For any future eviction programs, the government should ensure a transparent process that is clearly provided for in law, which should include fair compensation that reflects market value and an effective means for registering complaints.
"In most cases, the compensation schemes don't begin to compensate people for the loss of their sole assets: their homes and household property," Buchanan said. "The Baku mayor's office's scheme to take these private homes and businesses flies in the face of the rule of law and Azerbaijan's international commitments to respect private property and private and family life and to protect people from inhuman treatment."
Selected testimony from victims of illegal expropriations, evictions, and house demolitions in Baku:
"I had been living in our apartment for 20 years. My husband was born there and inherited it from his parents. My three children were born there. It was a large apartment with a balcony and a garage, in the very city center, only a few minutes' walk from the presidential administration. They had been trying for almost a year to get us to sell the apartment or accept a smaller apartment on the edge of the city. But I didn't want to sell my apartment. Our whole life was there.
"Ours was a long building, and they have been slowly destroying parts of it for months. But when they came on Friday [June 10] to evict us, we had no warning. My husband was at work. I was preparing lunch for my children. At least 15 police came, and several workers started to break down the door. They shouted at us to ‘Get out right away or we'll break down the door.' I demanded to see a court order, but of course they didn't have one. I started passing our belongings out of the window as the police broke down our door.
"I called my husband, crying. When he arrived they wouldn't let him come into the apartment. His very own apartment! They grabbed him and tore his suit jacket. I didn't want this to go any further, so I gathered my children and we left. They demolished the building. Now we're living with my mother in a two-room apartment. I don't know where we will live.
"They had told me, ‘Accept our compensation offer or you'll be in the street.' I really couldn't believe this. I couldn't believe that they could actually forcibly remove me from my own apartment. But that's exactly what they did."
-Sevinch Zainalova, who was evicted together with her husband and three children, ages 8, 18, and 20, from their apartment on Neftyanikov Street on June 10, 2011.
"They started demolishing our building in June 2010. The property owners on the third floor were already gone, and they removed the roof. Those of us living on the first and second floors remained in the building. Then on November 19 police surrounded our building and came up to all of our apartments simultaneously. We had no warning that they would come that day. They broke down my door, and workmen entered the apartment and started moving out my furniture and belongings.
"My blood pressure went up and I called an ambulance. When the ambulance arrived they wouldn't let it enter our courtyard. Instead, the police took me out of my apartment [...] They put me in a police car and took me to the local station. They had already brought the rest of my neighbors there. There were eight of us. Some people were still in their pajamas. They held us there all day, until about 7 p.m. They kept saying that they would let us go in a half an hour, but they didn't. [...]
"When they finally let us go, we went back to our building, but they had already started to demolish it and we couldn't go in. We saw huge machines hauling away our belongings. I went to the warehouse to collect my belongings; half of the things were broken and many things were missing, including my diamond earrings that I wore every day. Many valuable things were just gone."
-Nuria Khalikova, a librarian, who was evicted from her apartment in a building on Fizuli Street in November 2010.
"Many times they came and told us to leave our apartment. There was a lot of pressure on us to leave. The last time was one week before the actual demolition. All of the buildings around us had already been demolished. Ours was the last. In the evening the bulldozers came right to the house and even started to knock it down. The police came, dragged us out of the apartment and made us stand on the street. They packed up our belongings and threw them out on the street. We watched as the building was demolished. We didn't have the chance to immediately move our belongings to another location and so some things remained outside on the street and many of our belongings went missing."
-Khajibaba Azimov, a former member of the Azerbaijani parliament, who was evicted in December 2010 from his apartment on A. Topchubashov Street.
"When I met the State Property Committee official to discuss my compensation options he asked me, ‘How many square meters is your apartment?' And when I told him, he began laughing, saying, ‘I have a bathroom bigger than your whole apartment!' When I told him that I didn't agree with the compensation offer, he said, ‘Take the money and get out of your apartment! If you don't, you will see, I will throw you out by force anyway in 15 days.'"
-Alirza Rzaev, who lives with his family in an apartment in a building slated for demolition on Mirzaga Aliyev Street.