(Baku) – The Azerbaijani authorities should promptly follow the May 15, 2012 release of an opposition activist by releasing others held on politically motivated charges, Human Rights Watch said today. Ahead of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest on May 22 through 26, the authorities should guarantee freedom of expression for protesters planning peaceful demonstrations in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, as well as for the thousands of local and foreign journalists covering the song contest, Human Rights Watch said.
The release of Elnur Majidli, an opposition activist, on May 15 was unexpected, Human Rights Watch said. He was freed after a court hearing at the prison, based on a request he put forward to a local court. Majidli was arrested at a peaceful demonstration in Baku on April 2, 2011, together with hundreds of other demonstrators, who had taken to the streets inspired by the uprisings in the Middle East. He had been sentenced to two years in prison.
“Majidli’s release is a positive step, but there are many others who unfairly remain in detention,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “With all eyes on Azerbaijan for Eurovision, the Azerbaijani authorities have a unique opportunity to demonstrate to the world not only their capacity to host a headliner event, but also their commitment to human rights by releasing the journalists, bloggers, and activists they have locked up.”
At least 10 other people detained in conjunction with the April 2011 protests remain in prison. They have begun a hunger strike to protest their continued detention and to draw attention to their situation ahead of the start of Eurovision.
The Eurovision Song Contestis an annual televised competition featuring music acts from 56 countries in and around Europe.It attracts 125 million viewers from around the world. Semi-finals will begin on May 22.
Azerbaijan’s opposition parties plan peaceful protests on May 19 and 20. The authorities have not granted their requests to hold the protests in the center of Baku. The government should allow people, who have chosen to use the attention drawn to Azerbaijan by Eurovision to get their voices heard, to protest publicly without interference, Human Rights Watch said.
“Azerbaijan has a terrible record where peaceful demonstrations are concerned,” Gogia said. “Police have broken up demonstrations by beating and arresting large numbers of people, as they did last April, or by simply rounding people up and shipping them out of the city.”
Police in Baku violently dispersed demonstrators as recently as May 14, when they broke up two separate peaceful protests in the center of Baku. Police rounded up several hundred protesters gathered in the city center to call for the release of political prisoners. Video footage of the incident shows police roughing up peaceful protestors, dragging and beating some. Many were transported to the outskirts of Baku and released on the side of the road.
International human rights law recognizes freedom of expression as a fundamental human right, essential both to the effective functioning of a democratic society and to individual dignity.
Azerbaijan also remains hostile to other forms of expression, particularly when criticism of the government is involved. Independent journalists, human rights defenders, and others seeking to express their opinions, investigate issues of public interest, or criticize government authorities have been attacked, harassed, threatened, and imprisoned.
Six journalists, one blogger, and two human rights defenders are in prison in Azerbaijan, convicted on spurious criminal charges apparently related to their journalism or other expression of their opinions.
As recently as April, in the middle of the day, police and security officials from Azerbaijan’s state oil company viciously beat Idrak Abbasov, a well-known Azerbaijani journalist who was filming forced evictions and house demolitions by the oil company. The officials kicked and beat him unconscious, leaving him with a concussion and multiple bruises.
A Human Rights Watch researcher will be in Baku from May 17 through the end of the Eurovision Song Contest.