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Activists use Eurovision song contest to highlight rights abuses

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2012-05-26

Activists in Azerbaijan took to the streets to protest ongoing human rights abuses as the country prepares to host Saturday's Eurovision Song Contest. Demonstrators fear mass arrests once the foreign media depart after the competition.

AFP - Rights activists in Azerbaijan are using the weekend's Eurovision Song Contest to draw attention to repression in the ex-Soviet state but fear a backlash once the music extravaganza ends.

The opposition accuses the Aliyev dynasty that has ruled Azerbaijan almost since the fall of the Soviet Union of clamping down on dissent and public protests, and of jailing political opponents on trumped-up charges.

Taking advantage of the unprecedented influx of foreign media to the capital Baku, activists are using tactics ranging from rallies to hunger strikes to draw attention to their cause.

"For the first time in Europe, people have used Eurovision as a tool to try to resolve problems linked to human rights," leading Azerbaijani rights campaigner and youth protest organiser Rasul Jafarov told AFP.

Wearing a T-shirt with the slogan "Sing for Democracy", Jafarov, 27, said he had asked one of the favourites, Sweden's Loreen, to talk about rights during her appearance.

The authorities brush off the opposition's actions, simply saying it lacks support.

"We have an opposition but it is small, it is weak, what can we do about this?" said parliament's committee for social policy chairman Hadi Rajabli.

The Sing for Democracy movement, an alliance of groups and individual bloggers and journalists, plans several peaceful "walking" protests in Baku during the contest while the media spotlight is on Azerbaijan.

Some are resorting to more drastic tactics.

In a ramshackle suburb of Baku, a group of six men sat on beds reading newspapers and chatting, a national flag pinned on the wall along with photos of political prisoners.

The men were among hunger strikers calling for the release of political prisoners and democratic reforms. A group of five women sat in a neighbouring room.

The protest was taking place in the headquarters of the country's main liberal opposition party, Musavat.

Fears of reprisals

Grey-haired activist Oktay Lygenderei said he'd been on hunger strike for three days, in sympathy with his brother, who was jailed for three years last spring after he tried to observe a protest.

"It's good that foreign journalists are coming and are interested," he said, but added he feared that "after Eurovision, mass arrests may begin."

Musavat is part of an opposition alliance called the Public Chamber that has held two rallies this month broken up by police. It plans another unsanctioned demonstration Thursday outside the television centre.

Max Tucker of Amnesty International, which counts 17 prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan, travelled to Baku to rally media interest but warned of a possible backlash.

"The thing Amnesty International is extremely concerned about is after Eurovision finishes," he said.

"The activists who have spoken out about rights abuses in the context will be seen by the authorities as people that tried to ruin the party and retaliated against as soon as the international press leaves."

That's a view shared by many, including those who felt the regime's displeasure in the past.

"This is a rare opportunity but unfortunately it's not going to happen afterwards. When the Eurovision song contest ends, the government will go after all the critics. I'm absolutely sure," award-winning Radio Liberty journalist Khadija Ismayilova said.

Ismayilova, who had been digging into the Aliyevs' business involvement in the new Eurovision venue the Crystal Hall, has bitter personal experience of the risks of opposing the authorities.

Her flat was wired with cameras, used to make a video of her having sex. When she refused to back down, state media published descriptions of the video.

She made light of it, saying that two of her colleagues faced similar smears, while other journalists had been seriously beaten or even killed, or had family members kidnapped.

"It doesn't make sense to worry, because it is not in my control," she said.

Date created : 2012-05-25

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