The human misery behind the glitz of Eurovision

The deterioration of human rights in Azerbaijan is badly out of tune with the sunny image the song contest wants to promote, write Jerome Taylor and Richard Hall

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It is seen by Britons as a celebration of kitsch – a harmless event which millions watch despite our chance of victory being close to nil. But for many citizens of this year's host country, Azerbaijan, the Eurovision Song Contest has brought misery as the government has forcibly evicted thousands from their homes in the run-up to the competition.

When Azerbaijan won the right to host Eurovision, the government of President Ilham Aliyev saw a chance to showcase the gas-rich country's burgeoning economy. Activists were optimistic the high-profile event would pressure the authoritarian regime to address its abysmal human-rights record.

But rights groups say the situation is now worse. A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) last month revealed a "beautification" scheme for the capital Baku has led to thousands of people being evicted from their homes, often in contravention of court orders.

The story told by residents of 5 Agil Gurliyev Street is one example. The nine-storey tower block overlooks the Baku Crystal Hall Stadium, a 25,000-seat arena being built to host the contest. Many in the building were forced to leave with very little notice and without proper compensation, says the HRW report. Those who stayed had electricity and gas cut. The building is set to be torn down to make way for a "resort zone", to be used by visitors attending the competition.

The Aliyev government says the demolition has nothing to do with Eurovision. But the forced evictions are a small part of a larger human-rights problem. After his father Heydar died in 2003, President Aliyev introduced some increasingly authoritarian measures. Backed by billions of dollars from a booming oil and gas sector, he has yet to win a fair election and has cracked down on opposition voices.

Inspired by the Arab Spring, last March opposition groups led a series of protests in Baku and in other major cities against corruption, cronyism and the lack of democratic progress. Scores were arrested and imprisoned, including opposition politicians, journalists and bloggers. Human-rights groups estimate more than 60 people in Azerbaijani jails are political prisoners. Late last year the Azerbaijani government had to assure the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) – the organisers of Eurovision – that freedom of speech would be guaranteed for all participants, delegates and visiting press. Azeri bloggers and human-rights groups were quick to remark the same privileges are not extended to them. "Azerbaijan will no doubt offer an opulent stage to voices from across Europe, but outside the concert hall, few critical voices are tolerated," said Amnesty International programme director John Dalhuisen.

While some call for a boycott of the competition, not all activists believe it is necessary. Instead, many hope media scrutiny accompanying such an international event will help spotlight their plight. "I don't think a boycott will actually do much," explains Rasul Jafarov, a prominent human-rights campaigner who is part of a coalition of rights activists that has come together under the banner Sing for Democracy. "Instead what we want to see is journalists, politicians and those on the delegations look into what is happening in our country."

Others believe Eurovision should take a more critical line. Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, has called for the EBU to seek assurances from the Azerbaijani authorities that they will halt all further expropriations of properties until they can be carried out in a transparent manner.

But the EBU is unlikely to become embroiled in the debate surrounding Azerbaijan's human-rights. It has repeatedly stated Eurovision is a non-political event. A spokesman said last week Eurovision "can act as an agent of change", adding that the EBU would be "disappointed" if more countries boycotted the event.