Cheesy, fun, cringeworthy, entertaining, bizarre, exciting……all descriptions of the Eurovision Song Contest that carry some merit. But for hundreds of citizens in the Azerbaijani city of Baku, where the competition will be held in May, it has meant fear, intimidation, brutality and destitution.
A shocking new report from Human Rights Watch outlines in detail, through over one-hundred pages of interviews and testimony, how scores of residents have been forced from their homes, as the authorities rush to develop the area surrounding the brand new 25 000 seater Baku Crystal Hall.
Desperate to present a sparkling and redeveloped city to the fifty-six countries tuning in for the competition, Azerbaijan’s authorities have resorted to evicting local residents at hours notice before bulldozing their homes and leaving them with just tokenistic financial compensation. Many have even suffered night-time demolitions which took place without any warning whatsoever:
“I woke up because the building was shaking, and I heard something I thought was thunder. I took the kids and went outside. [I went up to] the official in charge and asked him to give us time to take our belongings out. He looked at me and said, ‘Ok,’ but then in the next moment said to the bulldozer driver, ‘Knock it down!’”
In a number of cases, families have been held in police custody as demolitions were carried out and in twenty-four cases Human Rights Watch documented buildings being torn apart despite the fact that people were still inside, with authorities showing “wilful disregard for [their] dignity, health, and safety.”
Of course, whilst brutal such behaviour by the government of President Ilham Aliev is far from unprecedented. Even in the year since the Eurovision Song contest was awarded to Azerbaijan, his thugs have continued their record of imprisoning and abusing those showing signs of dissent, including journalists and social media users. A recent anti-government rally ended with a third of participants in jail and Amnesty International has used the publicity around the Song Contest to highlight the plight of fifteen Azerbaijani prisoners of conscience.
Major international competitions such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics and this year’s African Cup of Nations, held in Equatorial Guinea, have been used by abusive regimes to showcase themselves in positive light. Invariably efforts to do so actively increase human rights violations, as the authorities seek to undertake rapid development and crush embarrassing dissent. Whilst Aliev’s government may not be in the same league as Teodoro Obiang or the Chinese Communist Party when it comes to oppression, this pattern is clearly playing out in Azerbaijan ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest. There will be terror behind the music.