(Baku) The capital of Azerbaijan is alive with preparations for the Eurovision Song Contest finals on Saturday. Yet sadly, it's business as usual in the city's courtrooms. I came here to document human-rights violations—including, as it turns out, a violent crackdown on protesters on the eve of Eurovision's entertainment extravaganza.
Last week I attended the preliminary court hearing for Avaz Zeynalli, editor-in-chief of Khural, an independent newspaper. Mr. Zeynalli is charged with bribery and extortion, stemming from a complaint filed by a parliamentarian in the ruling New Azerbaijan Party. The parliamentarian claims that Mr. Zeynalli demanded money to suppress an article on corruption accusations against her. Mr. Zeynalli denies the charges, claiming that they were fabricated in retaliation for his critical articles about the government. If convicted, Mr. Zeynalli could face up to 12 years in prison.
Mr. Zeynalli's trial is part of what appears to be a pattern of serious violations of freedoms of expression and assembly, among others. At least four other journalists are in jail on similar charges that look politically motivated.
So on Friday I arrived around 3 p.m. at Baku's Grave Crimes court. About 100 people were outside: family, friends, other journalists from the non-state-controlled media. It was good to see so many familiar faces gathered to support the editor.
I saw Mehman Aliyev, director of Turan, the country's leading independent news agency. "How are things?" I asked. "The government says we have free press in the country and everyone can write anything they want," replied Mr. Aliyev. He went on to say that when a reporter for the U.S.-backed Radio Liberty recently investigated the president's family business, only Radio Liberty and Turan ran the story. "Not even opposition newspapers or so-called independent ones said anything or reported on it," he said.
A likely reason is intimidation of the media and the resulting self-censorship, which are a major problem here. Last year authorities raided the offices of Mr. Zeynalli's newspaper and seized all their reporting equipment, after the paper had failed to pay a fine in an earlier defamation case. Since March, the Radio Liberty reporter who investigated President Ilham Aliyev's affairs has been the victim of a vicious smear campaign, after refusing to give in to threats to cease her inquiries.
At around 3:20 p.m., the courtroom opened. I squeezed through the crowd and sat next to a prominent civil-rights lawyer, Intigam Aliyev, who volunteered to translate for me. An iron cage, with Mr. Zeynalli inside, took up much of the room.
From the moment I had set foot in the airport in Baku a day earlier, all I could see around me was Eurovision: colorful festivities everywhere, celebrations of culture and history. Young girls, smiley and welcoming, handed me a map of Baku and a glitzy magazine, advertising "the best of the best" in Baku. Advertisements for luxury brands fill the first few pages.
Driving on a spotless road from the airport to the city center I could not help noticing the transformation Baku has undergone. The capital is bustling—all dressed up and prepared to receive thousands of visitors. Every shop window, every billboard, and every café and restaurant displays Eurovision posters; even London cabs are being deployed in the city, emblazoned with the Eurovision slogan: "Light Your Fire!"
The courtroom offered a reality check. The mood was not festive, and it was so packed and hot that it was hard to breathe. Mr. Zeynalli, in his cage, had the most space in the room. One of his lawyers' first motions was to let the editor out of the cage, so he could sit next to them. The defense team said they had not been given a chance to meet with their client recently. Motion denied. Two big locks kept the cage bolted shut.
Mr. Zeynalli's lawyers also made a motion to let him await trial under house arrest instead of in detention, and another to halt the criminal case against him for lack of criminal intent. They asked to allow video and audio recording of the trial, saying the court secretary was not able to record all the details of the hearing. And they asked to call an expert to testify about whether text messages allegedly containing blackmail threats from the journalist to the parliamentarian had been tampered with.
The prosecutor opposed all the motions and the judges left to deliberate.
The people who came to show their support for Mr. Zeynalli tried to cheer him up. No one was allowed to approach the cage, except for his small daughter, maybe eight or nine years old—only long enough for Mr. Zeynalli to give her two kisses through the iron bars. Tears welled up, and not only in the little girl's eyes.
The judges returned and the presiding judge read the decision. All the motions: denied. Notably, what took the judge almost 15 minutes to read had taken less than five minutes to write.
The court will hear the merits of the case on May 31. Eurovision will be over by then, but life will continue in Azerbaijan. People concerned with the human-rights situation here should keep pressure on the government to meet its international obligations on freedom of expression and other civil rights—even when the stage goes dark after Saturday evening.
Mr. Gogia is South Caucasus senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.