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Azerbaijan: We should be able to enjoy the songs without complicity in ruthless forced evictions

It is disappointing that the European Broadcasting Union, which oversees the contest, did not take a stand

Published in: The Independent

As I approached National Flag Square in Baku, the entryway to the glittering Baku Crystal Hall where the Eurovision Song Contest is being staged tonight, I remembered Arzu, a single mother forced to flee her apartment here with her two young children when bulldozers arrived without warning at 5am one day last October to destroy her building, burying many of their belongings in the process.

I remembered Viktor, a retired military officer who remained with his wife in their apartment of 20 years until it became utterly unbearable to stay, after workers started dismantling the building with them inside. And dear Natalia, 79, who spent a substantial part of her pension and countless days trying in vain to convince the authorities to compensate her at market rates for her modest apartment.

As hundreds of millions of viewers tune in to watch their favourite performers at the contest, what they won't see are the ruthless evictions and demolition of houses that took place to transform a quiet and modest neighbourhood.

I have been to Baku several times since Azerbaijan won the song contest last May.

On each of those trips I interviewed people from the several hundred families who were about to be or who had been evicted from the neighbourhood next to the Baku Crystal Hall.

This time I'd been deliberately avoiding the square, as I imagined it would be hard to see what used to be a lively neighbourhood transformed into a lifeless area with a major highway running through it.

Governments may in certain circumstances lawfully expropriate private property. But forced evictions of the kind that took place in Baku – without fair process, protections or adequate compensation – violate a host of binding human rights standards and are always illegal under international law.

Looking out at National Flag Square this week, I also felt disappointment in the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which oversees the annual contest.

Human Rights Watch has been urging the EBU to take a stand against the forced evictions and urge a fair resolution of claims. Instead, it accepted the Azerbaijani government's argument that the evictions and demolitions in the neighbourhood were not related to the construction of the Baku Crystal Hall. Certainly, the new highway might have been planned before Eurovision. But many of the evictions took place just after Azerbaijan won the right to host the contest.

I don't know if Arzu, Viktor, or Natalia will be watching tonight. But if they are, the least they should have is the hope that they can be in some way compensated for what they've lost. The EBU and Azerbaijan's other international partners, like the EU, should also speak up. The joy of this year's Eurovision shouldn't have to come at their expense.

The writer is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch

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