(Baku) – The government of Azerbaijan has forcibly evicted homeowners and demolished their homes for urban development projects in Baku, the capital, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Dozens of families have been evicted from the neighborhood where the arena for the May 2012 Eurovision Song Contest is being built.
The report, “‘They Took Everything from Me’: Forced Evictions, Unlawful Expropriations, and House Demolitions in Azerbaijan’s Capital,” documents the authorities’ illegal expropriation of properties and forcible evictions of dozens of families in four Baku neighborhoods, at times without warning or in the middle of the night. The authorities subsequently demolished homes, sometimes with residents’ possessions inside. The government has refused to provide homeowners fair compensation for the properties, many of which are in highly desirable locations. Azerbaijani law stipulates that market value should be paid in compensation for a forced sale.
“The Azerbaijani government is not just demolishing homes, it’s destroying peoples’ lives,” said Jane Buchanan, senior Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “It should immediately stop illegal expropriations, evictions, and demolitions and compensate the people who have been evicted for both the loss of their homes and emotional suffering.”
The evictions have been carried out for a variety of projects, including construction of parks, roads, luxury housing, a parking garage, and a shopping center.
The authorities forcibly evicted Arzu Adigezalova, 41, a math teacher and a single mother of two young children, without warning from her apartment next to the National Flag Square in the pre-dawn hours of October 29, 2011.
“I woke up because the building was shaking and I could hear something like thunder,” Adigezalova told Human Rights Watch. “I took the kids and went outside. [I went up to] the official in charge and asked him to give us time to take our belongings out. He looked at me and said, ‘OK,’ but then in the next moment said to the bulldozer driver, ‘Break it down!’”
Adigezalova frantically tried to collect her belongings and take them out of the building, but lost many of her family possessions.
The eviction campaign accelerated in recent months in the seaside National Flag Square area, one of the four neighborhoods covered in the report. It is adjacent to the construction site for the Baku Crystal Hall, the modern, glass-encased arena for the May 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. The annual televised competition features music acts from 56 countries in and around Europe.
The government’s actions to clear residents from the National Flag Square area intensified after May 2011, when Azerbaijan won the contest and as a result became host to the 2012 event.
“Eurovision gives the government an opportunity to showcase Baku to thousands of visitors and millions of television viewers,” Buchanan said. “But instead, Azerbaijan’s government is showcasing its disregard for human rights by forcing people from their homes steps away from the contest site. With heightened visibility there will be more scrutiny, so it’s in the government’s interest to change its course.”
When a Baku property is slated for expropriation and demolition, the government typically offers residents monetary compensation or resettlement. However, in cases documented by Human Rights Watch, some homeowners did not receive compensation or resettlement offers. Others stayed in their homes after they received meager offers from the government that they were unwilling to accept.
In some cases, the authorities have forcibly evicted remaining residents with little or no notice and then immediately demolished their houses or apartment buildings. Large numbers of police and other government officials surrounded the buildings and filled the stairwells in some instances, then forcibly entered apartments and removed residents. In at least three cases police detained residents in police stations while workers demolished the buildings. The homeowners returned to find their possessions buried in a pile of rubble.
In other cases government officials have arrived without warning with a bulldozer and other machinery at night or in pre-dawn hours, ordered home owners to vacate immediately, and then began demolishing their homes.
In several cases documented by Human Rights Watch, the authorities have demolished homes in violation of court injunctions or while court cases challenging the intended demolitions were pending.
In many cases, including in the National Flag Square area, the government has cut services or begun dismantling apartment buildings in which some residents remained. These measures make the buildings uninhabitable and compel residents to leave.
Homeowners in several buildings told Human Rights Watch that workers removed roofs and windows, exposing them to rain, snow, and cold. When the authorities cut electricity and water in one building in the National Flag Square area in January 2012, residents resorted to melting snow for water.
“In the course of its expropriation and evictions program, the government has shown an astonishing disregard for the dignity, health, and safety of homeowners and their families,” Buchanan said.
The permanent or temporary removal of individuals, families, or communities against their will from the homes or land they occupy without providing access to appropriate legal or other protection is considered a forced eviction under international law. Forced evictions should be carried out only in exceptional circumstances and undertaken solely to promote the general welfare and only in accordance with national law and international standards.
“Governments have the right, in some very limited instances, to expropriate property for compelling state needs,” Buchanan said. “But what the authorities are doing in Baku violates national and international law: they are evicting homeowners on a dramatic scale, in some cases for completely non-essential purposes.”
In the course of its research, Human Rights Watch contacted the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which oversees the Eurovision Song Contest, regarding the expropriations, forced evictions, and demolitions in the National Flag Square area to build a road and park that are expected to serve as entry points for fans to access the Baku Crystal Hall. The EBU sought to distance itself, citing the “apolitical” nature of the contest and the government’s argument that the construction is not tied to the event.
Human Rights Watch said that EBU affiliate members should urge the EBU, including the Eurovision Reference Group, to press authorities to resolve, fairly and transparently, all complaints related to expropriations, evictions, and demolitions near the Baku Crystal Hall.
Azerbaijan’s international partners, including key governments and multilateral development banks, should urge the government to stop its campaign of expropriation and evictions and ensure that any future actions respect national and international law.
Azerbaijan’s international partners also should call on the government to urgently establish a fair and transparent mechanism to resolve the complaints of evicted homeowners and residents, and to reassess the compensation offered to those who lost their homes and possessions.
“Eurovision and the Azerbaijani government can claim the evictions are not connected to preparations for the song contest, but if the government hopes to see a successful event, they need to end the human rights abuses going on in plain view of the contest site,” Buchanan said. “Throwing families out of their homes so close by risks casting a shadow over the contest.”