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Azerbaijan ‘targets activists’ as it prepares to host Eurovision

Azerbaijan ‘targets activists’ as it prepares to host Eurovision

Baku’s Hospital Number 1 is an impressive building. It is immaculately clean and well equipped, a symbol of the modern state that oil-rich Azerbaijan wants to be. But upstairs in a hospital bed was another symbol of modern Azerbaijan – a badly injured journalist.

Idrak Abbasov was lying, struggling to breathe, with a bandage around his head, a large cotton pad over one eye, and a brace around his chest.

He had severe concussion, two broken ribs, and he was unsure if he would recover his eyesight.

He had been filming some people who were protesting against their homes being destroyed by the state oil company Socar.

Guards from the company had beaten him up, he said. They punched him, set about him with sticks and then kicked him on the ground.

“I didn’t expect them to beat me that much,” he said. “They didn’t just beat me, they wanted to kill me. If my brothers hadn’t called the police, they probably would have killed me.

“We hoped that there wouldn’t be such attacks before Eurovision.

“It has always been dangerous to be a journalist in Azerbaijan. Now the situation is deteriorating every day.

“I was beaten so heavily that even journalists from state companies called me, amazed at what happened. I can’t imagine what they will do to us after Eurovision. There are not so many of us.”

The oil company is aware of the allegations made against its security guards and is conducting an internal investigation.

Spotlight on Eurovision

The Azerbaijani capital Baku is hosting this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.

The government is hoping to put on a fantastic show, but to its dismay human rights activists are using the country’s brief moment in the headlines to highlight problems that they say are getting worse.

The president of Azerbaijan is Ilham Aliyev. He took over from his father Heydar Aliyev in 2003, who had been president since 1993.

In theory Azerbaijan is a democracy, but life is made so difficult for opposition politicians and journalists that in the 2010 parliamentary elections not a single opposition deputy was elected.

Eynullah Fatullayev was once one of the most respected newspaper editors in Azerbaijan.

Then in 2006 his father was kidnapped. To secure his release he had to close down his papers.

The next year he was arrested and imprisoned – first for slander, and then for encouraging terrorism.

He was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years, but was released last year after international pressure.

He had upset the government with his reporting on Nagorno-Karabakh (an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan currently occupied by Armenia) and Iran.

But he thinks it was his investigation of the death of another journalist which first caused him problems.

“I worked with Elmar Huseynov,” he said. “He was editor-in-chief of Monitor magazine in 2005, but unfortunately some pro-governmental forces organised and killed him.

“I found these persons and published all of these materials in Azerbaijan newspapers.”

Musicians targeted

Despite the Eurovision Song Contest this month, the ongoing clampdown on free speech includes musicians too.

Jamal Ali is a 24-year-old singer. His music is outside the Azerbaijani mainstream, and often strays into politics.

He was asked to play at a recent protest rally. His first song impolitely suggested that president Ilham Aliyev should “Go away”.

The police decided he should be removed from the stage. At which point he insulted the president, and his mother, in the most foul-mouthed way he could.

He was arrested and taken to the police station where he says he was beaten.

“I had a bag on my head, and I was handcuffed from the back,” he said.

“And I was sitting on the chair with my legs on another chair. And they were beating on my heels with a stick, a baton. For three hours for the first time and two hours for the second time.

“They arrested me just because I have another opinion, I don’t think like them, and I write songs about different stuff.

“I was freed from the jail after 10 days because of Eurovision. If there was no Eurovision I would have been in jail for two years or even five years.”

Homes destroyed

One of the most controversial issues in Baku at the moment is the destruction of people’s homes to make way for new developments, among them a new highway along the seafront, new hotels and shopping centres and a giant flagpole – the biggest in the world until nearby Turkmenistan built one even bigger.

Human rights groups have documented the demolitions and filmed people being dragged screaming from their homes, complaining that the compensation on offer is inadequate.

But Ali Hasanov, a senior official in the presidential administration says the human rights lobby is being too harsh on the government, which he says has widespread support.

“Even among those whose homes have been demolished, and among journalists, 99% are satisfied and only 1% are unhappy,” he said. “In which country in the world are all the people satisfied?

“Naturally, not everything is OK in Azerbaijan. But which country does not some of the problems you see here? Which country does not have a blogger behind bars?”

There is no doubt that Baku has been transformed with some of the country’s vast oil and gas wealth.

The city centre is pedestrianised. The citizens of Baku promenade on a summer evening, surrounded by beautifully-restored buildings. Fewer former Soviet cities look as good.

The government wants to use the Eurovision Song Contest to highlight the best of Baku.

But in the run-down back streets, in the ruins of people’s homes where some are still living under the threat of the next bulldozer, there is huge resentment.

Many people feel that the country’s wealth is being controlled by a tiny elite, and with democracy now almost completely gone they have no say in the future of Azerbaijan.

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