(Baku) – Azerbaijan sent an ominous message about the government’s commitment to fundamental freedoms as the police violently dispersed two peaceful protests on May 21, 2012, Human Rights Watch said today. Police rounded up dozens of peaceful demonstrators, forcing them onto buses and beating many of them in the process.
The crackdown on the peaceful protests took place the day before the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest is to begin in Baku.
“The Azerbaijani authorities have gone to great lengths to prepare and polish Baku ahead of Eurovision, but police roughing up peaceful protestors casts a very dark shadow on all the festivities,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “If the authorities want the world to see a modern Azerbaijan as they tune in to see their favorite performers, they need to protect free expression in the country, and that includes allowing peaceful demonstrations.”
At approximately 1 p.m., about 100 opposition activists gathered in front of the “Icheri Shaher” [Old City] metro station in central Baku, chanting slogans such as: “Freedom,” “No to Corruption, and “Resign,” referring to President Ilham Aliyev. A Human Rights Watch researcher monitored the protest. The activists then marched a short distance to the Baku municipal building and continued to chant slogans at the entrance. There was heavy police presence in the vicinity of the metro station and the municipal building.
Soon after protesters arrived at the municipal building, several dozen uniformed and plainclothes police officers moved toward the crowd. Police announced over a loudspeaker that the demonstration was unsanctioned and called on demonstrators to disperse immediately. The protesters refused and continued to chant slogans.
Police made a second announcement calling for the crowd to disperse, but then immediately rushed at protesters without giving them a chance to disperse voluntarily.
Some police officers beat and kicked demonstrators, pushing them away from the municipal building. The police forced about a dozen protesters onto a nearby bus, one of many brought by police to detain protesters. Several policemen used rubber truncheons to beat protesters who resisted being put on the bus. Police then locked arms to form a line and pushed the remaining protesters into a nearby subway station.
At the same time, another group of activists gathered several hundred meters away at Fountain Square, a pedestrian walking area in downtown Baku. A Human Rights Watch researcher spoke to several witnesses and journalists who attended this protest and examined journalists’ video footage showing that the events developed there in a similar pattern.
Police used force to disperse the protest, rounding up protesters and forcing them onto buses. Video footage also showed three police officers violently dragging one woman away from the protest site, at which point she fainted. Other demonstrators came to her aid and helped revive her. The police made no effort to assist her, and no ambulances were waiting in the vicinity of the protests.
Police transported several dozen protesters from both protest locations to the outskirts of Baku and released them on the side of the road.
Azerbaijan is a party to a number of human rights treaties, including the European Convention on Human Rights, which imposes obligations on the government to respect the right of assembly and to refrain in all circumstances from engaging in prohibited ill-treatment of protesters. The government also has a duty to investigate and remedy violations.
The 2012 Eurovision Song Contest will be held in Baku May 22 through 26. The contest is overseen by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), an association of public broadcasters. The EBU has publicly committed to promoting freedom of expression in the countries where its member broadcasters operate and has made recommendations for governments, including the government of Azerbaijan, to improve freedom of expression and freedom of the media. The EBU held a one-day workshop in Geneva on May 2 on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan, attended by government officials, Azerbaijani NGO representatives, and representatives from international organizations, including Human Rights Watch.
But both at the event and at other opportunities, the EBU has been reluctant to take a strong public stand against the government’s record on freedom of expression. The EBU has repeatedly stated that it sees the Eurovision Song Contest as an apolitical event.
Ahead of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, the Azerbaijani authorities promised publicly to guarantee freedom of speech for contestants, fans, and foreign journalists who would attend the song contest but did not make the same guarantees for local activists or others.
“The government imposed a double standard for whose rights to free speech would be protected during Eurovision, and local activists got the raw end of the deal,” Gogia said. “The EBU should speak up publicly and make it clear that it expects Azerbaijan to uphold the same free expression protections for everyone, without exception.”