General view shows central Baku, Azerbaijan, June 23, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters
Authorities in Azerbaijan are not denying that gay men in Baku have been rounded up in official raids, from mid-September, they are just disputing the reason. Ehsan Zahidov, spokesman for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, said in a September interview with EurasiaNet.org that police were responding to complaints from residents in Baku that gay men were visible on the streets.

He is quoted as saying: “People complain that such people walk around us, walk in our streets, and sit in our cafés. ‘These are people who do not fit our nation, our state, our mentality, please take action against them.’”

This is the all too familiar language that underpins the rhetoric of  “traditional values” aggressively promoted by neighboring Russia. By placing gay people outside of tradition and culture, it makes sexual and gender minorities outgroups and hence convenient scapegoats. This has dangerous consequences for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the region. It echoes the language of social cleansing used by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov to justify the brutal purge earlier this year against gay men there.

Government officials have also justified the Baku raids in the language of public health, claiming that the gay men arrested were tested for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and Syphilis. “Those who have diseases are being isolated from society,” Zahidov said. The director of the AIDS Center of Azerbaijan, Natig Zulfugarov, points out that it would be against the law for the police to do so without a court order, which they did not have. 

Homosexuality was decriminalized in 2000, shortly after Azerbaijan gained independence from the Soviet Union. It seems that the Ministry of Internal Affairs has either forgotten this or thinks that people can legally be detained due to negative social perceptions. They cannot. 

As the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said during a high level event at the United Nations: “If public opinion is hostile towards LGBTI people that makes it more urgent for governments to act to protect them.”

What is needed is a thorough, independent, and impartial investigation into these serious allegations. And Instead of justifying the raids, the government of Azerbaijan should take the necessary steps to protect LGBT people from discrimination.