With Eurovision now a thing of the past, Azerbaijan’s Sing for Democracy civil rights activists are expressing concern about how to keep the country’s spotty civil-rights record in the international spotlight. As media attention moves on to other countries, they say, government crackdowns could resume against outspokenly critical human rights activists and journalists.
During May, campaigners for Sing for Democracy, a loosely organized group made up of some 35 non-governmental groups and individuals, held five public demonstrations in downtown Baku, which, given the city government’s usual refusal to allow such events in the Azerbaijani capital’s center, can be considered a record.
Senior presidential administration aide Ali Hasanov earlier had pledged that no post-Eurovision crackdowns against such activists would occur, but, in a June 1 interview with Obyektiv TV, he called for a campaign of “public hatred” against those who had taken aim at various government shortcomings while Azerbaijan was on center stage for the May 23-26 Eurovision Song Contest in Baku.
Government critics charge that one sign of such a post-Eurovision clean-up campaign was the June 1 arrest of 23-year-old photographer Mehman Huseynov, the younger brother of one of the prime activists in the Sing for Democracy campaign, Emin Huseynov. Mehman Huseynov was charged with beating up a police officer, but was released a day after his arrest upon the intervention of international organizations. The charge against him – hooliganism – still stands, however. Huseynov’s photographs and videos had been used by Sing for Democracy to show police behavior during their pre-Eurovision protests and picked up by international media. Huseynov believes that he was arrested “to punish my brother,” and that the charge against him has not been dropped because the government wants “to create an atmosphere of intimidation [by showing that] I might be sent to prison to serve up to five years at any moment.”
Government officials were not available for comment, but authorities usually argue that the opposition politicizes such cases.
One opposition political activist agrees with that observation. Abulfaz Gurbanli, chairperson of the Azerbaijan National Front Party’s youth committee, claimed that “up to 10 of our members were summoned to police stations after Eurovision and got a warning about facing more pressure if they do not leave the party or stop attending demonstrations.” Some say that their family members were also summoned.
Interior Ministry spokesperson Ehsan Zahidov told EurasiaNet.org that individuals involved in organizing unauthorized protests had been invited to police stations where it was explained to them that planning such protests is illegal. “It is normal and it happens all over the world,” Zahidov said.
Gurbanli counters, though, that such summons to police stations “10-15 days after demonstrations” form “a new pattern [of behavior] which raises paranoia among” the party’s “new and young members.”
Zahidov, however, denied that the police summons are related somehow to the Sing for Democracy campaign. “There’s no new pattern like that,” he said. “We do this kind of prophylactic measure against illegal activities all the time.”
Sing for Democracy activists say that they have no intention of stopping their campaign against civil rights abuses. They say they are planning a “Net for Democracy” campaign to coincide with the November 6-9 Internet Governance Forum in Baku. The Forum is an annual international discussion on Internet policies that is organized by the United Nations.
But how much difference such campaigns will make for securing long-term international interest in Azerbaijan’s civil rights woes remains debatable. Activists describe themselves as disappointed by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s decision not to meet with any opposition or human rights groups during her June 6 visit to Baku. Instead, Clinton met with Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, a youth activist with a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University who was recently released from prison.
But some activists say that just means Azerbaijanis need to look more to their own efforts. “Fighting for rights is our responsibility, not the international community’s,” commented Rashadat Akhundov, a board member of the NIDA [Azeri for exclamation mark – ed] Citizen Movement, which produced video clips and distributed stickers and posters about human rights issues during Eurovision. “The more active and strategic we are regarding the international community, the more support we will get.”
And, arguably, the more official irritation there will be. In a rare interview with the Azerbaijani news agency Trend, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, chairperson of the Eurovision Song Contest organizing committee, blamed the activists for politicizing Eurovision, and expressed disappointment with their actions. Government officials promptly echoed those remarks.
One civil society activist, however, says that any arrests of journalists or activists or warnings by police are no more than business as usual. “The authorities might have gotten a little softer on the eve of the Eurovision Song Contest, but we knew that it was temporary and they would keep doing whatever they had been doing before the contest,” said Anar Mammadli, chairperson of Baku’s Center for Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies. “The show goes on”.
Khadija Ismayilova and Ulviyya Asadzade are freelance reporters based in Baku.