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(Berlin)– The Azerbaijani authorities should immediately stop its campaign of forced evictions and demolitions in the capital, Baku, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should also guarantee fair compensation to homeowners and residents, including those already evicted.

The controversial Winter Garden opens the week of May 6, 2013, in central Baku, where hundreds of residents were evicted to make way for the park, shops, and a parking lot. The authorities have planned a week of celebrations and events, including a speech by President Ilham Aliyev on May 10, marking the birthday of his late father, former President Heydar Aliyev.

“The opening of the Winter Garden is unfortunately far from a celebration for those forcibly evicted to make way for it,” said Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should never have undertaken its sweeping program of illegal evictions, which displaced hundreds of families and left many of them in extremely difficult circumstances.”

Human Rights Watch has been documenting the illegal expropriations, forced evictions, and house demolitions in the Winter Garden area behind the Heydar Aliyev Hall and in other parts of Baku since April 2011, including in a February 2012 report, “They Took Everything from Me.”

The evictions and demolitions began in 2009 and have displaced hundreds– if not thousands– of families. Human Rights Watch has found that some people are evicted without warning or in the middle of the night. The authorities often cut off services to houses slated for demolition, making them uninhabitable and compelling residents to leave. Then the homes are demolished, sometimes with residents’ possessions inside. The government has refused to provide homeowners with fair compensation for the properties, many of which are in highly desirable locations.

Homeowners continued to face forced eviction in the lead-up to the park’s opening. On March 28, Baku city authorities forcibly evicted a family of five from their home in the Winter Garden area. The owner, “Shahla,” told Human Rights Watch that officials from the Baku Mayor’s office verbally informed her in November that they planned to expropriate her apartment and evict her family by May in advance of the Winter Garden opening. She received no official written notification and is not aware of any court order authorizing the eviction.

The authorities offered her 1,500 Azeri manat (US$1,900) per square meter for her apartment, which she believed was low, particularly given the central location of her home. Independent evaluations priced Shahla’s apartment at no less than 2,500 manat (US$3,185) per square meter. She repeatedly appealed to the authorities, sending letters and meeting with Baku mayor’s office officials for a review of her compensation, without success.

Workers dismantled parts of the building beginning in January.

Shahla’s family, including her 93-year-old mother who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, remained in their apartment building when workers began to dismantle it on March 24. Soon, electricity, water, and gas services were cut off and workers used bulldozers to bring down parts of the building.

“I resisted the eviction,” she told Human Rights Watch. “I was alone in the whole building. The workers tried to enter my apartment from the balcony and then damaged the roof. Others tried to damage the floor from the empty apartment below. …Water seeped in from the ceiling from the holes they made.” Ultimately, Shahla felt no option but to leave. The mayor’s office provided a truck to relocate her belongings, but she was forced to abandon some furniture and other possessions, since she did not have alternative housing immediately available. After many appeals to the mayor’s office, Shahla later secured a temporary apartment, with its financial support.   

“The already painful experience of being evicted was made that much worse for Shahla and her family by the authorities’ indifference to her appeals for help and fair treatment,” Buchanan said. “The authorities should ensure that families like Shahla’s don’t suffer needlessly for the government’s decision to transform central Baku. All residents facing eviction need to be treated with dignity and their rights should be respected.”  

In 2013, the authorities extended the demolition area related to the Winter Garden to include many additional streets beyond the initial plans for development of the park. In one striking case documented in the Human Rights Watch report, a homeowner forcibly evicted from her home in late 2011 in the heart of the Winter Garden area, is now facing eviction for a second time. In an interview with Human Rights Watch, Bashkhanum Abbasova, a 63-year-old retired university lecturerwho lives with her two sons, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren, told Human Rights Watch that, using her savings and the compensation she was awarded for her previous apartment, she purchased a four-room apartment several streets away from the Winter Garden. She renovated it before moving in. In late 2012, officials from the mayor’s office verbally informed Abbasova that her new home would be demolished by mid-2013. Abbasova has received no written notification about the expropriation.

“Officials from the Baku mayor’s office warned us to pack up for eviction,” she told Human Rights Watch. “They said that these houses spoil the good view of the Winter Park and so they’ll be destroyed.”

She has been offered 1,500 manat (US$1,900) per square meter for her second apartment. Abbasova saidthat market prices in apartment buildings near hers are between 2,500 and 3,500 manat (US$3,185 and 5,240).

Baku city officials have not made public their plans for demolitions and reconstruction. When selecting a new location to buy an apartment after her eviction, Abbasova specifically sought information about the city’s plans and was assured that the neighborhood she selected would not be affected.

“Prior to purchasing the house, I double-checked with the Baku mayor’s office to see if there were any plans to demolish the houses where I planned to buy,” she said. “Senior officials assured me that the area … would not be destroyed. The houses were not in the city plan list [of houses to be demolished].” 

“The homeowners in Winter Garden’s shadow have been completely subject to the whim of the authorities, unable to plan for major life decisions such as renting or buying a home,” Buchanan said. “At the very least, the authorities should immediately make all city development plans public and hold regular, well-publicized public hearings where residents can receive accurate information and share their views.”

In a 2012 meeting with Human Rights Watch, Azerbaijani government officials denied that the forced evictions in Baku were unlawful. A letter sent to President Ilham Aliyev in June 2011 regarding the demolitions remains unanswered. Governments have the right to expropriate private property and evict homeowners and residents in certain limited circumstances: solely to promote the general welfare and only in accordance with national law and international standards. 

There is no basis for the Baku expropriations and evictions in Azerbaijani law, which guarantees the right to private property and allows the government to expropriate property only in limited cases, such as for national defense, roads, or communications infrastructure. A court order is required to expropriate property. National law requires the government to purchase at market value any properties it expropriates and pay an additional 20 percent of the market value of the home as compensation for the owner’s trouble.

The expropriation and demolition of properties in central Baku also violates Azerbaijan’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, which explicitly protects against unlawful expropriation of property. According to the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), any deprivation of property, including by expropriation, must comply with the principle of lawfulness, be in the public interest, and pursue a legitimate aim in a proportionate manner.

The ECtHR has also held that failing to pay compensation reasonably related to the value of the property is an excessive interference with an individual's rights. In addition, in many cases of expropriation, the only appropriate sum deemed to be “reasonably related to the value of the property” will in fact be full compensation– that is the market price of the property, plus costs or losses incurred as a result of the expropriation.

The ongoing expropriation and demolition of properties in central Baku violates both Azerbaijani law and Azerbaijan’s international human rights commitments, Human Rights Watch said.

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