Eurovision hides dark side of Baku

Even Jedward's hair is feeling repressed

Jedward and Engelbert Humperdinck are accustomed to being under fire for their questionable musical output.

But the decision to hold the Eurovision Song Contest in ex-Soviet republic Azerbaijan may see them offending people’s taste for a wholly different reason.

The Irish duo and their gravity-defying hairstyles are due to join Mr Humperdinck at the tournament in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, this week.

But perhaps what Jedward don’t realise is that Azerbaijan’s human rights record would make your hair stand on end – without the need for hairspray.

The oil-rich nation is steeped in repression, with Amnesty’s last annual review of the country producing a catalogue of cases for concern, including intimidation and wrongful imprisonment of journalists, rival political activists, students and bloggers.

Azerbaijan won the right to host the contest by winning last year’s event in Germany with the love song ‘Running Scared’. But now it is journalists and government critics who are really running scared in the country, as Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father to the presidency, clamps down hard on dissent.

The government of Azerbaijan wants to use the Eurovision contest to showcase the nation, yet as Bahrain found recently with its Formula 1 Grand Prix, prestige international events can just as easily be used by citizens to draw global attention to internal repression which might otherwise go unnoticed.

Holding the Eurovision Song contest in Baku merely lends a glittery legitimacy to the government, which deserves to be in the limelight for a wholly different set of reasons.

In recent months, Amnesty International has documented how Azerbaijani authorities have repeatedly targeted individuals for their journalistic work or peaceful activism.

For instance, there was the case last year of government critic Eynulla Fatullayev, a newspaper editor, who was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in prison on a creative collection of charges including “terrorism, defamation, and drug possession”.

He got off comparatively lightly. His colleague, Elmar Huseynov, had been shot to death a couple of years earlier by unknown gunmen. The police have failed to investigate the murder, which many believe was ordered by someone at the top of government.

His widow, Rushana Huseynova, was been forced to flee the country after trying to look into why her husband died. She now lives as a refugee in Norway.

During the last election, there were incidents of reporters being kicked out of polling stations and held by police for trying to record examples of vote-rigging.

In recent months, Amnesty International has documented how Azerbaijani authorities have repeatedly targeted individuals for their journalistic work or peaceful activism.

In March, well-known investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova received a letter threatening the publication of intimate pictures of her if she did not abandon her work. When she refused and exposed the blackmail attempt, a video of her having sex was posted on a fake mirror website of Azerbaijan’s main opposition party.

Last month, state employees and police severely beat up journalist Idrak Abbasov while he was reporting on a forced eviction on the outskirts of Baku.

And in the last week, police in Baku violently dispersed two separate peaceful protests in the city centre, detaining 18 opposition activists. As with previous recent demonstrations, the protesters were calling for the release of prisoners of conscience and an end to restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of association.

So, while ageing crooner Engelbert and the Jedward brothers exercise their rights to sing cheesy pop songs in Baku, many native Azeris face an uphill struggle – or jail – if they exercise their own rights to question their government.

When viewers across the world tune in for the Eurovision this month, the most convincing way for Azerbaijan to present itself as a modern nation, would be for the authorities to end their crackdown on freedom of expression.

Until then, the international community must be willing to award Azerbaijan “nul points” for human rights.

A version of this article is published today in the Belfast Telegraph.