(Baku) – The Azerbaijani authorities roughed up and arbitrarily detained at least 30 and possibly more than 70 peaceful protesters today as dozens of local and international journalists looked on, Human Rights Watch said today. The protesters were held for several hours, then released.
“It is stunning that, as the world tunes in to watch performers sing their hearts out at Eurovision, the Azerbaijani government won’t allow even the smallest opening for its own citizens to express themselves,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “There should be an immediate investigation into the police use of force against peaceful protesters, and their arbitrary detention.”
Opposition political parties staged their protest in front of Ictimai TV, Azerbaijan’s public broadcaster and the host broadcaster of the Eurovision song contest. They intended to protest what they believe to be the station’s biased coverage of the developments in the country and demand airtime for the opposition.
At about 1 p.m., a handful of opposition supporters gathered outside Ictimai’s offices in Baku, the capital, and began to unroll posters with protest slogans. Without warning, police in uniforms and civilian clothes immediately moved in on the demonstrators, restraining them violently, including pinning their arms and roughing them up. Officers then shoved the protesters into waiting police cars and drove them away.
For the next 30 or 40 minutes, up to about a dozen other opposition activists arrived individually or in groups of two or three. As soon as they would begin to chant “Azadlig” [Freedom], or “Istefa” [Resign], security personnel immediately detained them in a similar manner.
A Human Rights Watch researcher and civil society organization representatives, along with the media, observed the heavy-handed police tactics. The Human Rights Watch researcher saw up to 30 people being detained, and the opposition compiled a list of 71 people they say were arrested near the protest site during the day.
Many of the activists were released after being driven to the outskirts of Baku. Others were taken into police detention, and released later from there.
“The only thing that differentiated the opposition activists who were pinned down and then forcefully taken away from the dozens of other people milling around the area was that they shouted ‘Freedom,’” Gogia said. “It was incredible to watch how the simplest attempt to speak freely was met with such violence.”
Earlier in the morning police detained at least seven political activists from the opposition Musavat and Popular Front Parties. Among the detainees was Gulaga Aslanli, deputy chairman of the Musavat Party. Aslanli’s lawyer, Osman Kazimov, told Human Rights Watch that his client was detained in the morning as he was leaving his house.
Two police officers approached him and took him to the Binagadi district police station without explanation, the lawyer said. Several hours later, Aslanli was transferred to the Binagadi district court. The court found him guilty of an administrative violation – disobeying a legal order of law enforcement, and released him after imposing a fine of 21 AZN (US$16). Kazimov said that Aslanli believes the detention was designed to intimidate him and prevent him from attending the protest.
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 is being 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 made a public commitment to promote 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 representatives of nongovernmental organizations, 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.
“It’s appalling that the EBU, which has committed itself to supporting freedom of expression, has refused to publicly condemn the government’s mistreatment of protesters this week,” Gogia said. “If the EBU doesn't speak out in defense of its principles now, as free expression is trampled during the Eurovision Song Contest in Baku, then its credibility is at stake.”