Two Azeri Human Rights Activists, Rasul Jafarov and Vugar Gojayev, give us their view on the impact of human rights campaigning in Azerbaijan in the run up to, during and after the Eurovision Song Contest.
Rasul Jafarov, Head of Sing for Democracy
“What will happen after Eurovision when all the international attention will be gone?” It was the main question asked by many foreign journalists who covered human rights and democracy in Azerbaijan around the Eurovision Song Contest 2012 in the country’s capital Baku. It was and still is an important question. Many people in and outside Azerbaijan involved in Sing for Democracy—a human rights campaign in anticipation of Eurovision—feared a new wave of repression would start after the contest finished. Many predicted a revenge fueled campaign by the government against local human rights and democracy activists. So have their fears proved correct?
The answer to this is two-fold. On the one hand, we must consider what was achieved by Sing for Democracy and all the other activists in the run up and during the Eurovision. For the first time in the country’s history, the carefully constructed image of the President and his regime has been damaged. Even the scandal riven Presidential elections of 2003 when the current President Ilham Aliyev assumed power from his father did not capture international attention like the Eurovision human rights campaign did. International mobilization around issues of human rights, democracy, freedom of speech and expression in Azerbaijan was immense. Media, NGOs, politicians and others all rallied behind the cause of human rights in Azerbaijan.
As this momentum built, people began to pay attention. The government in Azerbaijan, which had initially responded with overt hostility and threats to the Sing for Democracy campaign, soon realized they would need a change of approach. Government officials began to participate in, rather than block, events. On May 16, at an International Conference on Human Rights in Baku more than thirty representatives of the government were in attendance. A Sing for Democracy music event and public march in Baku was allowed to take place unhindered with many hundreds of people participating. The support for human rights and democracy in Azerbaijan, mobilized around the Eurovision Song Contest, showed the potential for change when supporters at home and abroad come together.
On the other hand, Sing for Democracy and others like it, are paying for this success. The anger amongst parts of the Azerbaijani government towards those who dented the country’s glossy image during the Eurovision is palpable. On May 31, Ali Hasanov, part of the Presidential Administration made a highly charged speech targeting all those who fight for democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan; local and international human rights organizations, independent journalists, real opposition parties and movements in Azerbaijan were all included.
The speech was a sign of repression to come. Mehman Huseynov, media coordinator of the Sing for Democracy campaign and a well-known photographer with Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety was detained on June 13. A criminal case has been launched against him on fabricated hooliganism charges, a common ploy by the government to arrest activists. Huseynov is now freed but the criminal case continues; if found guilty he could be jailed for two to five years. More than fifteen young activists who participated in the Sing for Democracy campaign march have been invited to police stations and pressured not to take part in future activities.
Other arrests in the post Eurovision clampdown include Hilal Mamedov, a member of the Talysh ethnic minority and editor-in-chief of Talysh language newspaper Tolishi Sado (Voice of Talysh). A Baku court announced a three-month pretrial detention for the journalist, who was kidnapped and detained without explanation according to family members. The arrest comes shortly after the journalist made a popular internet video entitled “Ti kto takoy, davay do svidaniya” (Who are you, goodbye). The video soon caught the attention of Russian users who added Putin to the skit, propelling it to even great notoriety. Mamedov irritated the Azerbaijani authorities even further in a recent interview with a Russia channel by claiming his short video had gained better popularity than the Azerbaijani government had managed to after spending millions on Eurovision. The spirit of resistance is far from gone in Azerbaijan.
This post Eurovision clampdown is desperate and predictable; a sign that the activity by Sing for Democracy and other activists has hit a nerve. Our fight for human rights, freedom of expression and assembly in Azerbaijan will continue. International attention may stray elsewhere but the steady drum beat for a real democracy in Azerbaijan will continue. As recent events have proved, change is inevitable.
Vugar Gojayev, Azeri Human Rights Activist
Azerbaijan hosted the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest final on May 26 despite protests over the country's abysmal rights record. Local and international human rights groups criticized Azerbaijan's hosting the event, accusing the government of alleged serious abuses, including restrictions of free speech, the arrest of the government critics and blatant violation of property rights.
Civil society and human rights activists viewed the glitzy spectacle as a golden opportunity to shine a light on their cause and focus international attention on the country’s poor human rights record. Political opposition and youth groups have seized on the increased international media presence to draw attention to the ongoing repression of critics and authoritarian rule in the country.
Well before the event, the authorities in Azerbaijan promised publicly to guarantee freedom of speech for contestants, fans, and foreign journalists who would attend the song contest but did not make the same guarantees for local activists or others. Rights watchdogs pushed the European Broadcasting Union—the international organizer of annual competition—to condemn the ongoing abuses in Azerbaijan and to keep its human rights obligations. The European Broadcast Union proved unwilling to cooperate insisting the annual competition is a cultural event and should not be complicated by politics.
Despite this enormous international media scrutiny prior to the competition, many rights activists now believe the situation has actually worsened. The successful campaign of the Sing for Democracy coalition, a group of local and international NGOs working to raise human rights concerns before and during the song contest, has angered the authorities. While the authorities and pro-government media lambasted the Sing for Democracy coalition and opposition parties for presenting Azerbaijan in a bad light, police employed heavy-handed tactics to violently disperse protest actions and arrest the regime critics hoping to take advantage of the international attention.
With the stagnant regime resisting reforms and further entrenching the harsh political climate, the country’s journalists, human rights defenders and political activists often asked: What will happen after Eurovision? Many civil society activists feared the authorities would crack down on critics and activists once the song contest ended and international attention on Azerbaijan faded. “This summer will be very hot”, was the expression that local activists used when referring to the possible reprisals in post-Eurovision period.
Though a senior government official Ali Hasanov had earlier pledged that no post-Eurovision retaliations against the activists would take place, this has not proved to be the case. Days after the competition, Hasanov himself called for a campaign of public hatred against the opposition activists, critical journalists and media outlets. “Such people shouldn't feel they can dare to go out in the city; they should feel ashamed”, he concluded.
The detention of photographer Mehman Huseynov, who was active in the Sing for Democracy campaign comes amid a host of other troubling signs in Azerbaijan. Huseynov’s arrest appeared clearly intended to intimidate and punish Huseynov for his activism, and to send a warning sign to others. Though Huseynov has since been released, the politically-motivated criminal charges against him—specifically hooliganism—still stands.
The intimidation and interrogation of numerous activists and critical journalists continues in retaliation for their extensive work during the Eurovision campaign. The past weeks have seen the sentencing of journalist, Anar Bayramli, to two years in prison on spurious drug charges, and also the detention of another journalist Hilal Mammadov on similar politically-motivated and trumped up accusations. Alarming news is coming from the remote regions, where police routinely harass and torture the activists.
Nevertheless, for some activists the international pressure on the government has not been entirely without benefit. In an unexpected pardoning decree, President Aliyev granted amnesty to nine political prisoners, who were arrested for participation in the opposition’s protest actions in Spring 2011. Two other people jailed on the same charges remained in prison. There remain over 60 political prisoners, among them journalists, in prison in Azerbaijan.
The ongoing retaliation and increasing number of politically motivated arrests suggest the Azerbaijani government has no intention of ceasing its repressive policies. Azerbaijan’s international partners should take these trends as a signal of a potentially broader crackdown against critical activists.
Azerbaijan will host he 7thAnnual Internet Governance Forum from 6-9 November 2012, an annual event under the auspices of UN. Civil society activists are now planning to organize a new public campaign, preliminary entitled “Net for democracy", to draw attention not only to the serious concerns on freedom of expression and internet rights, but also to the worsening situation of human rights in general.
In light of this coming event, the Azerbaijani government will be working hard again to promote a positive international image of Azerbaijan, while it will continue at home to engage in a crackdown on freedom of expression and other fundamental rights.
In order to hold international events in the future, the government must be pressured to demonstrate that it takes its international and domestic commitments seriously. For now, it’s clear they do not.