Eurovision puts human rights in Azerbaijan in the spotlight
When Azerbaijan won the Eurovision song contest last year many hoped the attention would pressure Ilham Aliyev's authoritarian regime to ease up on human rights violations there. But little has changed, according to one human rights defender who spoke about the abuses in her native country on a recent visit to Stockholm.
When Ell & Nikki won the Eurovision song competition with their entry "Running Scared", it was a big day for Azerbaijan, the small oil-rich country by the Caspian Sea. Human rights activists like Arzu Abullayev hoped the song contest, which is watched by more than 100 million people, would move her country's regime to improve its poor human rights record.
"Human rights defenders expect the release of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. We have 40 political prisoners and 14 prisoners of conscience. We expect that people's rights will be expected," says Arzu Abullayev to Radio Sweden.
However, none of the political prisoners have been released, and with the exception of two recent rallies that were allowed to take place, there has not been much improvement, says Abdulleyev who spoke at a recent seminar in Stockholm.
The former Swedish ambassador to Azerbaijan, Hans Gunnar Adén, who participated in the seminar, says there has been a constant deterioration under President Ilham Aliyev who removed presidential term limits in 2009, and according to the human rights NGO Norwegian Helsiniki Committee, many of the more than 50 people in jail for political reasons are tortured.
Recently, Human Rights Watch accused officials of unlawfully evicting residents and demolishing homes to make way for the Baku Crystal Hall where the Eurovision Song Contest will be held.
Meanwhile, in an effort to boost the country's image, the government has spent almost $40 million dollars on public relations last year. But pro-democracy and human rights activists have launched their own campaigns, such as Sing for Democracy, in which artists speak out about the human rights situation in Azerbaijan. Arzu Abullayev met singer Loreen who will represent Sweden in the competition.
"She says that I will do all the best for democracy. I like this idea. It's very close to my heart - human rights," Arzu told Radio Sweden.
The Eurovision song competition will be held in Baku on May 26.