Protesters bundled away on eve of Eurovision

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Rights activists in Azerbaijan are hoping for support this evening

The stage is set for Europe's kitschest music festival tonight, with Engelbert Humperdinck, a group of Russian grannies and other novelty acts ready to perform in Azerbaijan. But just outside the grand Eurovision hall, protesters daring to cry "freedom" on the streets of Baku were last night being dragged away by police into waiting buses.

Oil-rich Azerbaijan has built a 25,000-seat hall especially for the contest and has spent an estimated £400m on the most expensive Eurovision contest ever. But critics of the government, run by the authoritarian President Ilham Aliyev, have been intimidated, blackmailed and beaten up. This has led many people to wonder whether Baku is an appropriate venue for a lighthearted song contest.

The veteran rights campaigner Peter Tatchell yesterday called on Humperdinck and other participants to make a stand. "I urge contestants to find subtle ways to distance themselves from the host country's dictatorial regime," he said. "Even a simple statement like 'I love freedom' can make an impact." Mr Tatchell added that the human rights situation in Azerbaijan is "incompatible" with Eurovision, which is supposed to stand for "values of free expression and free association".

Last night, about 25 protesters were the latest to be swept under the carpet by authorities, arrested and bundled into buses as they gathered near Crystal Hall, the Eurovision venue, and chanted "Freedom". On Thursday, up to 35 people were arrested at a rally outside a public television station.

Rights groups have also criticised the European Broadcasting Union, which runs the song contest and has studiously avoided criticising the Azerbaijan regime. Mr Aliyev has run the country since 2003, when he took over from his father. His family and close associates have been linked to a number of corruption scandals. Journalists who have exposed these have been attacked and blackmailed.

Baku has been turned into a modern city of skyscrapers and boutique shops, but hundreds of families have been turfed out of their homes to make way for construction, often with little compensation. Rights activists say the regime has used Eurovision to boost its standing in the eyes of citizens.

The President's wife is the head of the preparation committee, and his son-in-law will sing at the opening. The President himself opened Crystal Hall amid much fanfare.

Rasul Jafarov, who runs Sing for Democracy, a campaign aimed at using Eurovision to highlight Azerbaijan's problems, has been urging contestants to be aware of human rights and corruption issues in the country and to speak out from the stage. So far, the only contestant to show any interest in meeting opposition activists is Sweden's entry, Loreen. "She came to see us a few days ago and promised to say something, but when she was asked at a press conference about human rights, the moderator cut in and said such questions were inappropriate," said Mr Jafarov yesterday. "We are still hoping that someone will offer support from the stage," said Mr Jafarov. "But people are under pressure not to say anything."

The cost of victory? Singer 'told to lose'

Looking for landmarks in Spain's economic meltdown? Forget the most savage government cuts in 30 years, the stockmarket turmoil and the one in four unemployed.

Yesterday, Pastora Soler, the country's contender in the Eurovision Song Contest, was forced to deny reports that she had been asked to lose tonight's competition on economic grounds. Should Spain win, the good news is that it would be its first victory since 1969. But, with the economy buckling, winning would put a strain on the government's finances, as Eurovision rules stipulate that the winning country must host the following year's contest. And the song and dance show is not cheap: the most expensive Eurovision prior to Azerbaijan was Moscow in 2009, estimated to have cost $40m (£26m).

Tonight's event is believed to have cost several times as much. Soler's denial came after an interview on Thursday to ABC Punto Radio, with some interpreting her remarks to mean that Spain's public television station RTVE, which has recently had its government subsidy cut by €211m (£169m), could not afford the competition. However, yesterday, she told the BBC that she had been misquoted. "Spanish public television want me to win and me, too," she said.

Alasdair fotheringham

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