Eurovision build up marred by crackdown on protests in Azerbaijan

 As the glitzy Eurovision song contest gets underway in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, opposition groups strive to use the international attention to show a much less glamorous side of the host country.


A protester detained in Azerbaijan's capital on Monday. Screen grab from the first video below.


As the glitzy Eurovision song contest gets underway in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, opposition groups are striving to use the international media spotlight to show a much less glamorous side of the host country.


Activists held an unauthorized demonstration in Baku on Monday to denounce the government’s muzzling of the opposition. They allege that the government, by repeatedly denying them demonstration permits, is infringing on their right to freely assemble. They also call for the release of members of opposition members who were imprisoned last year after taking part in unauthorized anti-government protests.


According to Amnesty International, there are currently 12 prisoners of conscience serving prison sentences in Azerbaijan. The rights group also accuses the government of censoring, harassing and beating up journalists. Azerbaijan was ranked 162 out of 179 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index last year.


While they were in town to cover the Eurovision semi-finals Monday, foreign media were able to witness firsthand the protest’s brutal dispersion by the police, who detained dozens of participants.


Protesters marching and scuffling with police in Baku. Courtesy of Elvin Agsaqqal Huseynli/Pencere.


A senior government official accused human rights groups such as Amnesty International of spreading lies about Azerbaijan, and blamed foreign media for conducting an “anti-Azerbaijani” campaign ahead of the singing contest.


This is Azerbaijan’s first time hosting the event, and its government has spared no expense in what is billed as the most extravagant Eurovision contest yet. It has spent over 100 million Euros on a new concert hall alone. The opposition has pledged to continue protesting throughout the event, the grand finale of which will be held May 26.


This video shows a protester being taken into custody. Courtesy of Elvin Agsaqqal Huseynli/Pencere.

“We fear that the authorities will crack down on us even harder when the Eurovision contest is over”

Turgyt Gambar is an activist who participated in Monday’s protest. He is part of the Nida Civic Movement, a youth pro-democracy organisation.


Time and time again, opposition groups have applied for permits to demonstrate in the city centre. They’re always denied. Last time, they applied for a permit quite far from the city centre, but near a metro station, so that people could at least reach the demonstration. Again, they were denied. So several opposition group, united under the umbrella group Public Chamber, decided to hold a small protest Monday to demand freedom of assembly.


The goal was to march to the mayor’s office, but the police stopped us. They were quite confrontational – they kicked and punched protesters, and even pushed foreign journalists around.


“It’s quite risky to hold an unauthorized protest in Azerbaijan”


It’s quite risky to hold an unauthorized protest in Azerbaijan. Protesters are often put in police vans and driven hours outside of the city, where they’re left in the middle of nowhere, and must get back on their own. This happened to me just a week ago during another protest. But it can be much more serious than this. Last year, the police arrested opposition members taking part in such demonstrations and jailed them for "disturbing the public order."


This time, it seems we were luckier – it appears that everyone who was detained has since been released. Perhaps the government wants to avoid too much bad publicity during the Eurovision, although they certainly didn’t seem to care too much when they broke up our protest Monday. We fear that they’ll crack down on us even harder when the contest is over, and when foreign media leave the country.