Western pressure is saving LGBT lives in Azerbaijan, but crisis is far from over

After Canada and other Western governments protested the arrests and beatings of gay and transgender citizens in Azerbaijan, the regime began releasing the detainees, proving that publicity and pressure can force autocratic regimes such as the one in Baku to unclench their fist now and then.

But as a report released on Tuesday by Human Rights Watch reveals, the situation remains grim, which is a tragedy for LGBT people trapped within a society that hates them.

Azerbaijan doesn’t deny the pogrom. According to a statement by the Internal Affairs Ministry and the prosecutor’s office, 83 people were detained between Sept. 15 and 30, allegedly because they had engaged in prostitution.

The government maintains that many of them had sexually transmitted diseases, and that most were later released, sometimes with a fine or warning for disobeying the police.

But of course, that’s not what really happened.

A Human Rights Watch investigator spoke with people who had been arrested, lawyers who had represented the accused and human-rights activists. The detainees spoke of being verbally abused, beaten and pressed to give up the names of other homosexuals or transgender people they knew.

“Three policemen forced me to take my clothes off and took me to another room, where I was forced to sit and get shocked by electricity,” one detainee recounted to the investigator. “There were some 10 policemen in that room. During a period of seven or eight minutes, they gave me electric shocks several times.”

The police were particularly interested in acquiring the names of wealthy men who had met with the detainees. Police corruption is rampant in Azerbaijan, and the interrogators may have been looking for victims to blackmail.

An Internal Affairs Ministry spokesman told EurasiaNet that Azerbijani citizens don’t want homosexuals in their midst. “People complain that such people walk among us, walk in our streets and sit in our caf├ęs. ‘These are people who do not fit our nation, our state, our mentality, please take action against them,'” he said. The ministry was happy to oblige.

As a member of the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan is is supposed to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In practice, it comes dead last in a ranking of 49 European countries in its treatment of sexual minorities, according to the LGBT rights group ILGA-Europe. The organization cited rampant discrimination, abuse, hate crimes and insults by public figures in that country.

“Official justifications for this anti-gay crackdown are as bogus and dangerous as the charges police have used to arrest people,” Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch, said in the report. “The government’s human rights and public health obligations mean they should focus on protecting and empowering this marginalized minority, not humiliating and isolating them.”

A federal government official, speaking on background because they were not authorized to comment publicly, said Ottawa told the Azerbaijani government that it was concerned about the purge, reminded the government of its obligation to protect sexual minorities from discrimination, and warned that it would be watching the government’s actions closely.

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland told the House of Commons that persecution of sexual minorities “is an issue which I take personally and in which I have been very personally engaged.” Ottawa has brought in several dozen refugees from Chechnya who were being persecuted because of their sexuality, although the minister refused to publicly acknowledge the program.

“On some areas, our government cannot speak about what we are doing because of the danger these people face,” she said, adding: “We are very focused on the danger in Azerbaijan.”

The persecution of sexual minorities is not simply a tragedy for those being persecuted. It is a tragedy for everyone. Societies that discriminate against minorities also discriminate against women. Religious conventions inhibit open inquiry and tolerance, contributing to poverty, inequality and a diminished quality of life for everyone.

We can’t force Azerbaijanis or Chechens or any other society that discriminates against LGBT people to change their minds or hearts. All we can do is let them know we’re watching. If it helps spring a kid who’s being beaten and shocked by the cops, it’s worth it.

by John Ibbitson
Source – The Globe and Mail