Showing posts with label Azerbaijan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Azerbaijan. Show all posts

November 4, 2017

Finding The Meaning of Azerbaijan’s LGBT Purge, Where Are Those Arrested?

In late September Azerbaijan’s police rounded up and detained dozens of LGBT people. What explains this sudden crackdown?
This page written by LAMIYA ADILGIZI  and originally posted on Open Democracy
Police van in central Baku, September 2017. Image still via Euro Vision Social Newswire / YouTube. Some rights reserved.
In late September Azerbaijan’s police force began rounding up LGBT people, and those perceived to be such, across the country. On 2 October, police released all detainees, while admitting that 83 had been detained (LGBT rights activists estimate their number at 150-200). The events led to widespread international condemnation, but this story isn’t over — not least for the young men and women whose lives may never be the same.
In the weeks since the crackdown, several LGBT people have either left the capital of Baku, or fled the country altogether (reportedly to Russia and Turkey). Harassment of LGBT people continued into October in the country’s second-largest city of Ganja. After detaining and strip-searching LGBT people, local police “warned [gay and transgender people] to leave the city, where they are not wanted” alleged Minority, the country’s only LGBT magazine, in a tweet on 14 October.
Azerbaijani society is so intolerant towards LGBT people that the country was declared “the worst place to be gay in Europe”
Homosexuality was decriminalised in Azerbaijan in 2000. However, public attitudes have yet to change: LGBT people remain largely defenceless against hate crimes and hate speech. In January 2014, Isa Shahmarli, founder of the Azad LGBT network, took his own life by hanging himself with a rainbow flag. In his final note, the prominent activist blamed society for his death. Such are the levels of Azerbaijani society’s revulsion towards LGBT people that the country was declared “the worst place to be gay in Europe” in the 2016 Rainbow Index. 
In this atmosphere, it’s no surprise if some Azerbaijanis turned a blind eye to the crackdown. But what explains the detentions and humiliations in the first place? And what could a country which lavishes millions on its international image have conceivably gained from an anti-LGBT crackdown?

Contagion and contempt

Baku still dismisses any accusations from human rights organisations of systematic pressure against gay, lesbian and transgender people. Its spokesmen first declared that the detentions were carried out in the interests of public health. Azerbaijan’s interior ministry and the prosecutor general’s office released a joint statement on 2 October that raids in the capital targeted people accused of “offering unsolicited sexual services to locals and tourists, violating public order and spreading infectious diseases.”
The authorities’ statement also claimed that of those detained, six had AIDS, a further six were HIV-positive, and 16 had syphilis. The stats quickly became confused, as reports emerged that AIDS centres were denying having conducted any medical examinations. Pro-government media went even further, claiming that all those detained had sexually-transmitted diseases. Whatever the discrepancies, the authorities concluded that urgent measures to protect public health had to be taken. 
Young Azerbaijanis at the waterfront in Baku, 2005. Photo (c): Dmitry Korobeynikov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.
In an interview for EurasiaNet, spokesman for Azerbaijan’s interior ministry Ehsan Zaidov, cited the aforementioned claims as proof that public concerns about the LGBT community were entirely justified. He also added that LGBT people among the Azerbaijani population “[do] not fit in our nation, our state, and our mentality.”
This isn’t the first time police have rounded up LGBT people in Baku. Law enforcement personnel have often conducted AIDS tests upon detaining transgender, gay or lesbian people. What was remarkable about the crackdown in September was its sheer scale, aggression and systematic nature — police arrested people on the street, while others were reportedly tortured and forced to confess their involvement in the sex trade

Spirited away 

Officials state that the police operation lasted for 15 days, from 15-30 September, while local lawyers state it began a day earlier. On 14 September, plainclothes police entered nightclubs and bars to detain LGBT people. Reports soon emerged that police had been approaching LGBT people on streets and the parks across Baku and demanded that they leave — and fast. In short, they were to become invisible.
The first three days alone saw the arrest of over 100 people, 56 of whom were arrested and sentenced to administrative detention of 10-30 days by district courts. Some 18 were fined, and nine received verbal warnings. Others were held by police with no formalities whatsoever. 
“They lined us up outside the front door of the police station and ordered us not to show our faces on Torgovaya Street [now called Nizami Street - ed.] or any other touristic areas after 10-11 PM,” one gay man who was detained in central Baku tells me. September, it should be mentioned, is not tourist season in Azerbaijan.
Some were luckier. One gay man told me that he was outside when his flatmates were taken into custody: “I went out to buy groceries and heard my friend yelling from the balcony, telling me to run away, as [the police] had come for us. I hid in a hen-house all night,” he says. When he returned, the flat had been turned upside-down. The landlord then evicted the man and his friends.
“I was shocked,” began one trans woman who described the humiliation endured after her trial. Detained while dining at Baku’s Hard Rock Café, she was forced to undergo a blood test on suspicion of carrying an infectious disease. Police then shaved off her hair to make her “look like a man”. This isn’t uncommon experience for trans people in Azerbaijan. Despite having undergone male-to-female surgery, many trans women in Azerbaijan are still registered as male on their national identity cards, a gender identity to which they must conform. To date, only one trans woman has succeeded in changing the gender on her passport. 
Many LGBT people are now afraid of venturing out in public — they fear being trapped by the police and being taken into custody once more
Transgender and transsexual people have been particularly hard-hit in the latest crackdown, and several have left Azerbaijan or returned to their families (if their relatives still accept them). “We don’t want to be invisible,” one told me from a neighbouring country, “We will not die. People will speak of us even after we are gone.”
“The psychological condition of these people is not good,” sighs Javid Nabiyev, chair of the Nefes (Breathe) LGBT rights organisation. The prospects that they’ll get the help they need in Azerbaijan are dim indeed. However, Matanat Azizova, chair of the Gender Crisis Centre, sees the crackdown as a “clear violation of human rights”, adding that Azerbaijan is obliged to comply with European conventions on human rights and its own constitution, which proclaims the “equality of all people”. 
Thanks to rising international pressure from early October, the detained people in Baku eventually walked free. But many LGBT people are now afraid of venturing out in public — and even more afraid of meeting unfamiliar people. As Nabiyev puts it, they fear being trapped by the police and taken into custody once more.
There’s also the fact that alongside the beatings and verbal abuse, many detained people were released only after giving names and addresses of other LGBT people in Baku. These contacts were then arrested in turn.
So, the pretexts for this police operation seem as wide-ranging as the crackdown itself. But what, exactly, are the likely motives?

A crackdown without a cause?

Responding to a letter by Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe’s commissioner on human rights, Azerbaijan’s interior minister Ramil Üsübov dismissed the idea that the detentions were linked to the detainees’ sexual orientation or gender identity, declaring that “the situation [for LGBT rights] in Azerbaijan is not fundamentally different from the rest of Europe”. His explanation reiterated nearly all the justifications offered by officials since detentions started.
Alongside “health concerns”, Azerbaijan’s interior ministry has also cited appeals from Baku residents as a reason for the police operation (human rights defenders have disputed this claim). One official justification for the numerous detentions and arrests was that those under scrutiny resisted arrest or disturbed the public order. Indeed, the interior ministry included “hooliganism” as a factor in its recent statement.
“The situation [for LGBT rights] in Azerbaijan is not fundamentally different from the rest of Europe”, says interior minister Ramil Üsübov. Photo courtesy of MeydanTV. All rights reserved.
“The official accusations against them are unfounded, and the victims say that they’ve done nothing except follow the orders of police officers,” Samad Rahimli, a Baku-based lawyer involved in defending the detainees, tells me. All those whom I interviewed for this article confirmed that the police did not specify the exact reason for their detention while they were in custody.
“I was told by the police that I had been disrupting public order. I couldn’t fathom how. We were just chatting among ourselves on Torgovaya Street,” recalls one gay man, adding that he was then rebuked by the police for “asking too many questions”.
Another gay man tried to find out more during his detention at Baku’s main police department, to which officers responded that “everything [he knew] was just a rumour, and that the operation [was] an order from above.”
Police also explained the crackdown by accusing those targeted of being sex workers, stressing their “immorality”
Police also explained the crackdown by accusing those targeted of being sex workers, stressing their “immorality”. As Azerbaijan’s Interior Minister went on to say in an interview with Lent.Az that those “working at nights” caused the most public concern. This ties in with another possibility — that the crackdown was the result of an appeal from Baku residents (Ministry of Interior said this, but human rights defenders have disputed the claim). 
In at least 57 cases known to lawyers, LGBT detainees were accused not of engaging in sex work, but resisting police officers in their line of duty. 
Prostitution is illegal in Azerbaijan and is punishable by a fine — police raids against sex workers are routine in the capital. Operating brothels and pimping are criminal offences which can land the defendant with a prison sentence. Yet it’s important to note that such activities are far from limited to the country’s LGBT community and its alleged “immorality”. 
“We don’t deny that there are many transgender people among Azerbaijan’s sex workers,” explains Gulnara Mehdiyeva, an activist for Nefest and editor of Minority. “However, they are often obliged to get involved in it,” continues Mehdiyeva, noting that LGBT people are often excluded from many sectors of the labour market. 
For most sex workers in the country, the legal fine of 100 Manat (£45) is essentially a bribe to police to avoid arrest. Most detainees I spoke to confirmed that they had been fined 100-150 Manat, though Minority states some individuals have been fined 1,000-3,000 Manat (£450-1,350).
“There’s no legal documentation of any of these fines,” explains Samad Ismayilov, one of the founders of Minority. “The aim was just to extort and terrorise people.”
Even if one accepts the police explanation that the raid was launched first and foremost against sex workers, activists estimate that machinery of state soon turned towards another 150-200 LGBT people. They worked in the most diverse professions — teachers and housekeepers, bakers and hairdressers. 
Mehdiyeva points out that many police probably can’t tell the difference between sex workers and LGBT people — let alone between transgender, transsexual and gay people. This arbitrariness is as dangerous as targeted acts of discrimination, and pours no less oil on an already raging fire. 


A transgender woman insulted a minister passing by in his car. Transgender people beat the son of an influential Arab businessman. A government official’s son received a sexually transmitted disease after a night on the town. These are just some of the rumours which have been swirling around Baku since mid-September. Everybody’s reading the tea leaves here. Some even believe the crackdown is just one manifestation of intra-elite rivalries.
This much is certain: Azerbaijan’s LGBT community is a group nobody is willing to defend, and a group which nearly everybody hates. They’re a symbol of “western decadence” for conservatives and traditionalists, whom Azerbaijan’s government is eager to appease in its delicate dance between the west and the rest. After all, Baku has always been cautious in its dealings over the LGBT community — having to show (nominal) progress on human rights to European partners, without irritating a conservative electorate.
Rainbow Azerbaijan. An illustration by Leyla Ali for Minority Azerbaijan, the country’s only LGBT-interest publication. Photo: Facebook / Minority Azerbaijan.
And while the politics of homophobia in the South Caucasus is riven with geopolitical divides, not all LGBT people are automatically activists who feel compelled to pick a side. Indeed, most Azerbaijani LGBT people I interviewed did not seem particularly interested in the political situation in Azerbaijan. They wanted to keep their heads down and get on with their lives — their principal concern being that the country’s police interfered in those lives far too easily. Even those who somehow believed Azerbaijan to be democratic state saw this as “surprising”. 
Azerbaijan’s LGBT community never posed a political threat to the regime — many want to keep their heads down and get on with life
Indeed, Azerbaijan’s LGBT community has never posed a political threat to the regime — indeed, when politically expedient they have been showcased to the international community as a symptom of a newly westernised Azerbaijan. Never was this clearer than in 2012, when Baku hosted the Eurovision Song Contest, widely perceived by Azerbaijanis as “gay-friendly”. 
One could well ask whether the LGBT community have any friends in Azerbaijani politics whatsoever. When approached for comment, several of Azerbaijan’s opposition politicians did not seem willing to engage with the topic. Isa Gambar, former leader of Müsavat, the country’s largest opposition party, said that he remained sceptical of both the interior ministry’s statements on the detention and the accounts of human rights defenders (the party’s current leader Arif Hajili made no statement on the detentions). Leader of the National Council of Democratic Forces and former presidential candidate Jamil Hasanli is less equivocal — he sees the detentions as the act of a police state, and states that his political platform has no interest in citizens’ personal lives. 
One theory is that a crackdown on the beleaguered LGBT community was a useful gesture in the government’s attempts to build bridges with a conservative Muslim electorate. In 2011, 92% of self-described Azerbaijani Muslims believed homosexuality to be morally wrong (although it is important to note that 93% of Azerbaijani society at large held the same view). Nevertheless, Azerbaijanis of all faiths and none took to social media to support the actions of the police — calling on them to “burn” LGBT people in their social media comments.

Look, a bird!

Finally, there’s the timing. On 12 September, Baku’s police chief Mirgafar Seyidov became the first Azerbaijani citizen to wind up on the Global Magnitsky List, thus subject to western sanctions in response to corruption and human rights abuses.
Crucially, early September also saw the publication of a new OCCRP investigation on Azerbaijan’s laundromat — a slush fund which laundered nearly $3 billion to pay for the luxurious lifestyles of the Azerbaijani elite and their extensive lobbying efforts abroad. In response, Baku blocked the OCCRP’s website and slammed the report as “absurd”. By 23 September, hundreds of opposition activists were protesting in Baku, enraged by the new allegations.
Given that these revelations were probably quite embarrassing for several government officials, it’s not impossible that “a nice little war” was in order — to prove the authorities’ popular credentials and deflect public outrage.
It’s not impossible that “a nice little war” was in order — to deflect public outrage from yet more embarassing revelations about the corruption of Azerbaijan’s elite
Historian Altay Göyüşov also wrote in a 25 September Facebook post that launching a crackdown during the Islamic holy month of Muharram also had a certain resonance — perhaps a message of support for conservative Azerbaijanis’ worldview. 
These detentions have also been widely compared to the brutal anti-gay purges in Chechnya earlier this year, which saw dozens of gay men detained, assaulted, and tortured. Authorities allegedly encouraged “honour killings” across the territory. 
“It’s totally similar,” argues Nabiyev, adding that “the government is just trying to publicly make an excuse for western sanctions against Azerbaijan, taking this opportunity to demonstrate that mainstream opinion still supports the government [and vice versa].” 
“Should any sanctions be intensified in future, the government can then imply that they were imposed due to pressure on gay people [and they may be held responsible],” predicts Nabiyev. 
It seems that other authoritarian governments may have followed Baku’s lead — news recently surfaced that Tajikistan has drawn up a list of gay and lesbian citizens. The justification? Public health concerns. 
There may be many explanations for what happened in Baku, and what may still be happening in other cities across Azerbaijan. What is all too clear is that the short-term goals from harassing a widely-reviled sexual minority outweigh the international costs. It would seem that in Azerbaijan LGBT people simply remain too easy to hate — and for the authorities, too tempting a target

October 15, 2017

The Reason Why Gay Men/Trans-women Are Being Rounded Off in Azerbaijan

 Azerbaijani Young Man Has his head cracked open by military police in Azerbaijan. This was two years ago but the situation is not better but worse. During the last administration many nations paid by the International help from the US. Now with the current anti-gay administration, we hope it doesn't get reverse like so many things have.

During the last two weeks of September, Azerbaijani police launched a violent campaign of “arresting and torturing men presumed to be gay or bisexual, as well as transgender women,” according to Human Rights Watch and local advocacy organizations. On Oct. 2, by all accounts, police released all the detainees, officially acknowledging that 83 had been detained. Local advocacy organizations claim that beatings, electroshock, coercion, blackmail and other abuses were carried out based entirely on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Azerbaijan is “the worst place to be gay in Europe,” the 2015 and 2016 Rainbow Europe reports by ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association) concluded. The LGBT community in Azerbaijan has no legal protection. But for the most part, the state leaves the community alone — except when police extort money from individuals, often sex workers. The state can ignore the community because families routinely and effectively stigmatize, discourage and punish deviations from societal rules. So when the state does intervene, as it did in September, there’s usually a motive.

Why the September crackdown?

Early in September, an investigative journalism coalition called the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) released a report on something called the Azerbaijani Laundromat, apparently a slush fund that for two years laundered $2.9 billion in cash that helped Azerbaijani elites and officials buy luxury goods and that paid European lobbyists and politicians to support Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan reacted to the report by attacking the OCCRP, linking it to American Hungarian financier George Soros. European politicians called for investigations.

Separately, on Sept. 12, more than 20 international human rights organizations sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin calling for sanctions against the Baku chief of police for abusing political prisoners. The head of the Council of Europe called for legal action against Azerbaijan over its refusal to release one such prisoner, despite being ordered to do so by the European Court of Human Rights. On Sept. 26, two U.S. congressmen introduced legislation charging Azerbaijan with human rights abuses and calling on the U.S. government to respond. 

Why target the LGBT community?

Historically, Azerbaijan’s anti-Western campaigns targeted civil society and pro-democracy groups. This time, the regime targeted the LGBT community, more vulnerable in the Trump era. The LGBT community is also widely disliked in Azerbaijan; it’s a group no one is willing to defend.

Survey research in Azerbaijan is challenging because citizens self-censor and the government interferes. Nonetheless, when asked, Azerbaijanis express very negative attitudes toward LGBT people. In a 2012 nationally representative survey, 63 percent of adult Azerbaijanis said they would not like to have neighbors of a different sexual orientation, and 72 percent said they would not like to have neighbors who have AIDS. The World Values Survey, collected in Azerbaijan in 2011-2012, reports that 93 percent of Azerbaijani adults believe that homosexuality is “never justifiable,” with a mean of 1.19 on a scale of 1 to 10. Similarly, a 2011 Pew study finds, that, when asked, 92 percent of self-identifying Azerbaijani Muslims say that homosexual behavior is morally wrong. 

LGBT groups are seen as a symbol of the West’s attack on traditional values. And no group is more symbolically associated with the West. As political scientist Emil Edenborg explains in his new book, LGBT rights have been characterized as the key difference between the West and more traditional societies such as Russia and Azerbaijan. After years of media framing, Edenborg argues, many in “traditional societies” conflate LGBT people with the West’s imagined attack on traditional, national moral values.

That’s how the Azerbaijani government is portraying the recent attacks on gay people and trans women. Pro-government media explicitly describe the raids as measures to “prevent acts contrary to national and spiritual values,” associating these individuals with sex work. In an interview with Eurasianet, a Ministry of Internal Affairs spokesman said:

“The main reason for such raids was the numerous appeals from the residents of the capital. People complain that such people walk around us, walk in our streets, and sit in our cafés. ‘These are people who do not fit our nation, our state, our mentality, please take action against them.’” 

Gay men and trans women are framed as a health risk. Edenborg explains that LGBT people are characterized as not only a moral threat but also a health risk. In Azerbaijan, much of the early official response claimed that nearly all detained have several sexually transmitted infections, although the most recent statement said that fewer than 40 percent had at least one. The Ministry of Internal Affairs spokesman said, “This once again proves that both our citizens’ concerns and the actions we take about it are justified. It is important for the health of our people. Those who have diseases are being isolated from society.” 

Attacking LGBT people may shore up the government’s relationship with the Muslim majority. Further, although Azerbaijan is an officially secular country, religiosity is growing — which the government considers one of the strongest threats to the regime. The LGBT raids let the regime display a commitment to protecting spiritual values and nod toward the country’s Islamic religious groups, a faction with whom it has had a challenging relationship.

This is a particularly sensitive time for that relationship. Political commentator and religious history scholar Altay Goyushov notes that the LGBT raids come during Muharram, one of the holiest times in the Islamic calendar, which may be an effort to appease religious groups.

Finally, the LGBT raids are a boon to the government in that they further marginalize and divide the opposition. No one, not even human rights and pro-democracy groups, can afford to defend the LGBT community, according to Azerbaijani LGBT advocates, and the raids prompted heated social media debates between LGBT advocates and opposition figures. Creating drama within the opposition is a favorite authoritarian tool for social control, particularly in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan, ironically, brands itself “the land of tolerance,” notoriously sponsoring op-eds making the same claim. By finding a hated and indefensible target, the regime wins. The domestic benefits of these raids profoundly outweigh any international costs.

Katy Pearce is an assistant professor in the department of communication at the University of Washington. She studies technology and inequality in the South Caucasus. Find her on Twitter @katypearce.

July 8, 2016

Azerbaijan The Worse Place in Hell to Be Born Gay but Born we Did

Azeri LGBTI activist Javid Nabiyev in 2012. Photograph: Nefes LGBT Azerbaijan Alliance 

Azerbaijan has been ranked the worst place in Europe to live as an LGBTI citizen, after meeting only 5% of a leading rights organisation’s criteria for legal equality.
The ILGA-Europe Rainbow Index, released today, ranks 49 European countries according to the laws, policies and practices that affect LGBTI communities.
The countries with the three lowest scores are all post-Soviet: Armenia, Russia and Azerbaijan. The countries leading the index – Malta, Belgium and the UK – all scored above 80%.
Although homosexuality is legal in Azerbaijan, the 2016 index draws attention to the country’s failure to protect its LGBTI community from hate crime and discrimination. The review links the low score to the high number of homophobic and transphobic violent attacks, as well as discriminatory remarks made by political figures.
“Of all the social groups that are victims of violence and hatred, we are the ones that struggle most,” says gay Azerbaijani activist, Javid Nabiyev.
“Each year, hundreds of LGBTI people are exposed to physical, psychological and economic violence by their family members and the people around them. They are killed, forced to live a double life, commit suicide or leave the country.”

East v west

Today, Nabiyev sits in a small box-room in a German refugee shelter, the bare white walls are decorated only with the rainbow LGBTI flag and the national flag of Azerbaijan. Despite everything that happened to him there, he says: “It’s my homeland and I miss it.”

Nabiyev’s life in Azerbaijan became unbearable after he proposed to his boyfriend in 2014, and the pair became targets of a national hate campaign. Pictures of their engagement ceremony posted to Facebook found their way onto mainstream news. The couple’s personal details were published online and Nabiyev’s neighbours became threatening, he says.

The couple fled to Turkey before the pressure of persecution finally tore them apart. They returned to Azerbaijan separately, and Nabiyev continued with his activism.

But his work for Nefes LGBT Azerbaijan Alliance – the organisation he founded – made him a fresh target for the authorities. He can no longer count the number of times he’s been beaten by police and in the media, he was accused of being a western spy. Worried he could be detained more permanently, he fled to Germany.

Bjorn van Roozendaal, programme director of ILGA-Europe, sees the tension between east and west as key in the struggle for LGBTI rights. “We’ve seen a lot of backlash in the region. One common denominator is that Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia all want to distance themselves from the west and the LGBTI struggle has been at the centre of that,” he explains.

“LGBTI rights are seen as a modern western value that the west is trying to impose and this mindset really comes at the cost of the LGBTI community.”

Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe, which describes itself as “the continent’s leading human rights organisation.” All CoE members have signed the European Convention of Human Rights, in which article 14 prohibits discrimination “on any ground such as sex, gender”.

LGBTI rights are seen as a western value that the west is trying to impose
Bjorn van Roozendaal
In September 2015, the EU Parliament passed a resolution on Azerbaijan, condemning its treatment of human rights defenders and said it was “extremely concerned over the situation of LGBTI people”.

But van Roozendaal is not optimistic about the resolution’s power. “I don’t think that a country like Azerbaijan really cares what the EU think. I don’t think they want to be seen to be promoting LGBTI rights,” he says. “Change is not going to happen in top down way, it’s going to come from bottom up – from activists on the ground.”

He can’t speak openly about the work ILGA-Europe is doing in Azerbaijan because “any kind of visibility that we give to the work we do, puts people at risk. This work is made extremely difficult by the government, which is very sad.”

He can say that they are working to support the LGBTI communities to educate them on how to avoid risk and document hate crime. But it’s not easy to support grassroots groups. “There are strict controls on any kind of money that goes into the country, so it’s difficult to fund even awareness campaigns,” he says.
 Nabiyev’s is just one of many tales to have leaked out of the country in the past few years.

One of the most high-profile was the death of Isa Shakhmarli in 2014, a leading LGBTI activist who killed himself draped in the rainbow flag. He left behind a video in which he said: “I tried to explain that love is love as much as I could but my family and friends never understood.”

After his death, his friend Lala Mahmudova took over his role at the LGBTI organisation, AZAD. Mahmudova, who is straight and currently studying in Chicago, says she is often criticised for supporting LGBTI equality.

“On Facebook, a lot of my relatives and friends have blocked me because I support LGBTI people. They say, ‘You are going against our society’s values’.”

  Mahmudova sees violence and abuse at the hands of family members as a serious problem. “I know a lot of transgender people who are beaten by their fathers, sisters and mothers. It starts with their family,” she says. But with no LGBTI shelters in Azerbaijan and a largely unsympathetic police force, there is little Mahmudova or AZAD can do to help people in this situation.

Given the risks, for many people coming out to family and friends is too dangerous. Ahmad – not his real name – a 21-year-old student living in the capital, Baku, explains: “If my brother and my uncle find out [I’m gay], they will get very angry and I don’t know what could happen.”

Ahmad doesn’t feel like he has a family, and says he could never approach the authorities for help. “As a nation, we have no trust for our police or our government,” he says. “I have always felt I have no one but myself to lean on.”

Morgan Meaker
The Guardian

February 1, 2014

Gay Suicide in Azerbaijan Focus on The Human Rights of the Gay Minority

 The suicide of a gay rights activist has drawn stark attention to the problems faced by sexual minorities in Azerbaijan.
Isa Shahmarli, the 20-year-old leader of the Free LGBT group, was found hanged on January 22.
He had left a suicide note in a Facebook status update.
“I am going. This country and this world are not for me.… I am leaving to become happy,” he wrote. “You are all to blame for my death. This world is not bright enough to contain all my colours. Goodbye.”
The day before Shahmarli died, he gave an interview to the online television station Meydan in which he said he dreamed of the day when same-sex couples could stroll through Baku holding hands.
Shahmarli’s flatmate Reyhan Babayeva told IWPR that when he first told his close friends from university that he was gay, they refused to keep it secret and told everyone.
“His course-mates laughed at him and once even beat him up. Then one of his relatives found out and told his family, and they threw him out of the house. His relationship with his father was difficult enough already,” she said.
Shahmarli’s death sparked passionate debate on Azerbaijani social media networks, with strong opinions expressed on both sides. Some praised Shahmarli for his courage and lamented his death, while others said the country was better off without him.
Tariel Qasimov, editor of the website, said that homosexuals rarely faced trouble from officials, but often got abuse from their own families.
“When relatives find out that someone in the family is gay or lesbian, it’s seen a disgrace, something shameful. In some cases people are forced to get married, and in others they are thrown out of their homes and left to fend for themselves,” he told IWPR.
“The majority of their friends abandon them, leaving them without understanding and support. There are many people who consider it their duty to shame and disgrace people and to laugh at them. In Azerbaijan, the majority of gays therefore conceal their orientation from relatives and friends.”
Matanat Azizova, head of the Women’s Resource Centre, disagrees that officials leave gay people alone. She says her organisation is regularly approached by people saying they have been beaten or abused by police officers.
“There was even a case where the police beat up a lad in his own home. They then stripped him naked and took him like that to the police station,” she said. “Sometimes people are blackmailed into giving false testimony against someone else.”
Azizova said gay people needed to work more with civil society organisations, but cautioned that substantive improvements would happen only if the wider human rights environment changed for the better.
Javid Nabiyev, head of the gay rights organisation Nefes, says the stigma extends to employment.
“We’ve done a survey among 500 representatives of large and small companies, and 70 per cent of respondents told us they would not employ homosexuals,” he told IWPR.
Nabiyev said that he himself was unable to get a job because of his work on gay rights.
Aydin Mirzazade, a member of parliament from the president’s Yeni Azerbaijan party, told IWPR that the constitution guaranteed equal rights to all, and anyone who faced discrimination or abuse should seek redress.
“There must be no violation of human rights, whether it’s based on someone’s orientation or some other characteristic,” he said. “If someone from a sexual minority has really been subjected to unlawful treatment or has come under pressure, they must go to the police, tell the media about it, and defend themselves in every way they can.”
Nika Musavi is an IWPR-trained freelance journalist in Azerbaijan. 

January 25, 2014

20 Yr Old Azerbaijan Gay Rights Advocate Gives Up Commits Suicide

Isa ShahmarliIsa Shahmarli
“I am going away: this world and this country are not for me. I am going away to be happy. Tell Mom that I love her,” wrote 20-year-old gay rights advocate Isa Shahmarli before he apparently hanged himself on January 22 in his apartment in Baku. His death has sparked a debate about LGBT rights in conservative Azerbaijan.
In his suicide note, posted on his Facebook page, Shahmarli, who chaired the LGBT group Azad (Free), blamed “everyone” for his death. “This world is not colorful enough to accept my color too. So long,” the message reads.
One local outlet carried footage of an ambulance team trying to resuscitate Sharmarli. Some news reports suggested that problems with his family and Azerbaijan's largely homophobic society drove the young man to suicide.
Though authoritarian, Azerbaijan is often viewed as the world’s most socially liberal Muslim country, and less homophobic than its Christian neighbors, Armenia and Georgia. A small rally in support of gay rights was held in Baku last year. A similar event was thwarted by mob violence in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
But being liberal is a highly relative concept in the South Caucasus. As discussants at aHeinrich Böll Foundation conference on the LGBT situation in Azerbaijan put it, while a degree of tolerance exists for men with feminine appearances in such professions as hair-styling and show business, Azerbaijan’s sexual minorities live in a suffocating world of discrimination and rejection.

Hate crimes and hate speech are not rare and are not properly addressed by local laws, found a report by The Danish Institute for Human Rights. Some parents reportedly cut off their children, if they come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, human rights groups say.

Against that backdrop, some Azerbaijanis see Sharmarli's suicide as a motivation for change.   “All of us are guilty of his death,” whether by ignoring the mistreatment of gays or not speaking out in defense of their rights, wrote journalist Nigar Fatali in an epitaph for Shahmarli onMeydan TV’s website.
"The last time [Azerbaijan] made use of being free, rich and comfortable, we created the first opera in the East, built the first school for girls and established the first democracy in the Muslim world," she argued. “Now it is time to champion other things that truly matter, like tolerance, understanding and acceptance – the most human colors.”
pics: Radio Free Europe


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