Outcry as Azerbaijan police launch crackdown on LGBT community

At least 60 people have been imprisoned or fined after a spate of raids in the capital, Baku –

Authorities in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, have begun a vicious crackdown on the city’s LGBT community, according to activists in the country. Reports suggest that over the past 10 days dozens of gay and trans people have been arrested. One person the Guardian contacted said he had been beaten in police custody.

Homosexuality is legal in the oil-rich, post-Soviet country, but a survey released last year by a rights organisation ranked Azerbaijan as the worst of 49 European countries in which to be gay.

“There have been previous crackdowns on LGBT people, but this one is much bigger, with systematic and widespread raids,” said Samed Rahimli, a Baku-based lawyer who is helping coordinate legal defences for those who have been detained.

Rahimli said he was aware of 60 cases of LGBT people who had been either sentenced to 20 days’ imprisonment or fined as part of the recent crackdown. Those currently in jail were charged with resisting police orders. “This is a common charge used in Azerbaijan for arbitrary arrests.” He said many more people could have been caught up in the sweep but not formally charged.

Azerbaijani authorities denied that the roundup targeted all LGBT people. Eskhan Zakhidov, a spokesman for the country’s interior ministry, told the local APA news agency: “These raids are not against all sexual minorities. The arrested are people who demonstratively show a lack of respect for those around them, annoy citizens with their behaviour, and also those whom police or health authorities believe to be carriers of infectious diseases.”

Zakhidov did not clarify what might count as annoying behaviour or a lack of respect. Other officials have said the raids did not target LGBT people specifically but were instead aimed at people engaged in prostitution, and were launched after complaints from local residents.

The Guardian exchanged written messages with three gay men who said they had been caught up in the wave of arrests. None of them wanted their names disclosed and all said they were currently in hiding in Azerbaijan. One of the men said he had been beaten in a police station and released after being made to pay a 150 manat (£65) fine. “The police told me they would arrest me if they see me in the street again. Now I am afraid to leave my house,” he said.

Another said he was approached in a Baku nightclub by police who said they were conducting a search for LGBT people. All three said they had friends currently in detention, and reported police carrying out sweeps of the city searching for people who “look gay”. Their stories could not be independently verified but chime with the testimony of local lawyers and rights activists.

Samad Ismayilov, an Azerbaijani LGBT activist who left the country in 2014 citing safety fears and who now lives in the US, said he first began receiving information about the roundups on 16 September. “So far I know of 33 people involved, but this is only those who have gone to lawyers. I think there many more people who just want to keep quiet and hide,” he said.

“There are no gay clubs in Azerbaijan, but there are some nightclubs that are considered gay-friendly, and friends have told me that for the first time there are police outside the clubs looking for gay people to detain.”

Boris Dittrich, of the LGBT rights programme at Human Rights Watch, said the organisation was aware of reports about the events in Baku and was still trying to confirm them. He called for a “thorough and independent investigation” into the reports.

The crackdown has echoes of a roundup of gay men in the southern Russian region of Chechnya this year, many of whom were detained and tortured.

It was not immediately clear what prompted the Baku raids, or what the authorities’ end goal might be. The topic of homosexuality is taboo in conservative Azerbaijani society, and last year’s ILGA-Europe Rainbow Index ranked it the worst place in Europe to be gay, based on the number of violent homophobic attacks and discriminatory remarks by public figures.

In 2014 a 20-year-old Azerbaijani gay rights activist, Isa Shakhmarli, hanged himself with a rainbow flag. “This world is not able to hold my colours,” he wrote in a suicide note.

Rights groups have long criticised Azerbaijan’s rights record under President Ilham Aliyev, who took over from his father as the country’s ruler in 2003. However, the country’s oil wealth and lobbying efforts have meant international criticism has often been muted.

Orkhan Mammad contributed to this report.
by Shaun Walker in Moscow
Source – The Guardian