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The Azerbaijani government cracks down on LGBT people

It has been officially confirmed that 83 people were detained by the police in the last two weeks of September for being gay. The detainees were tortured and blackmailed and were told that they were not allowed to walk around the central streets of Baku. Members of the LGBT community had never been open about their sexuality, but now many are trying to leave Azerbaijan, especially following the mass reprisals against gays in Chechnya revealed in investigation by Novaya Gazeta. Meydan TV reporters investigated what is happening and why it is happening now.

Don’t talk to strangers

"Don’t go outside, refrain from talking even to people you know, don't tell anyone about your sexual orientation" - those are the recommendations that human rights activists have sent to members of the LGBT community.

Azerbaijan is the most homophobic country in Europe according to ILGA’s Rainbow Europe list, and yet nothing remotely like the current crackdown on the LGBT community has ever happened here before. The arrests of gay and transgender people started on 15 September with 11 detentions, increasing to 22 the next day. Police stopped people in the streets, captured them in night clubs and broke into apartments.

On 30 September, the Azerbaijani Interior Ministry conceded that it had detained 83 people but rights activists suspect the number is considerably understated and in reality at least 100 people were detained: that’s the number of people who were detained by the police and sought help from human rights activists.

The detentions started with sex workers. Although Azerbaijani society is generally conservative, Torgovaya street in downtown Baku is known as a place where men offer sexual services. They became the police’s first target.

"I was sitting on Torgovaya [the city's main street, and one of the streets where sexual services are offered] with friends. Police officers arrived and said that we were violating public order and that we had to go with them to the police station," says one of the detained men, who introduced himself as Murad. He believes that he was detained because he is "effeminate".

"We asked them what law we had violated and why we had to go with them. They responded that it was a raid, they were taking everyone, and it was mandatory for us to go with them. At the police station they checked our IDs and warned us that if we were outside after 11:00 pm or if we showed up on Torgovaya at all we would be detained again, fined 100-150 manats (50-75) euros and jailed for 20 days," Murad says.

Others, among the first to be detained on Torgovaya, say that officers tortured them at police stations in an effort to make them give out information about other gay men - clients and simply acquaintances. Blackmail was enough to make some of us talk - for a gay person in Azerbaijan publicity can be worse than torture (the families of some of them live in the provinces and know nothing about their children's life in the city).

"Police beat many of them, trying to make them talk about other gay and transgender people. Some of them were only released after they paid a bribe," Murad recalls. The police were demanding 100 to 150 manats, or about 50-75 euros. He says that all of his gay friends were detained by the police.

Afterwards, raids on night clubs and apartments began.

When the police "pressure" you

Since his detention, Murad has been living on the street, because his landlord kicked him out. Other detained people ended up in a similar situation, and the only explanation that the gay and transgender people received from their landlords was that the police were "pressuring" them.

The police beat up another gay man, Samir, and made him tell them which of his friends were gay.

"The fight against prostitution"

The Azerbaijani government insists that the raids were meant to fight prostitution and that the sexual orientation of the people detained was not a matter of concern for the police.

"People of non-traditional sexual orientation who are engaged in prostitution have lately been flooding certain areas in the city center in evening hours. Their behavior violates public order. Residents of the city have repeatedly requested that the police stop the illegal activities of those people, therefore we had to take action. The raid was conducted against prostitutes, not against sexual minorities," says a press release issued by the Interior Ministry.

The fight against prostitution is only an excuse, says Javid Nabiyev, the president of the Azerbaijani LGBT rights organization Nefes. In his report about the LGBT arrests, he says that the detentions, arrests and torture did not affect only sex workers. "Gays and transsexuals were detained simply because of their sexual orientation," Nabiyev believes.

This is confirmed by stories told by Murad and Samir. They stress that gays were the target of the police.

"They beat out of us the addresses and names of gays, not sex workers," Murad says.

What the law says

Prostitution is the only legal ground cited for the recent detentions of gay men in Baku and homosexual relationships are not illegal in Azerbaijan.

Providing sex services is an administrative offence in Azerbaijan, which is punished by a fine of 100 manats (50 euros).

The Interior Ministry’s press service, however, has alluded to another law as well. Azerbaijan's Criminal Code provides for three years of imprisonment for someone who intentionally infects their partner with HIV. Tests for HIV and other infections are mandatory for people marrying in Azerbaijan. Before registering their marriage, Azerbaijanis must submit a paper to the civil registry office that confirms that they have taken the tests. The results are confidential, known only to the person tested.

Ehsan Zahidov, the head of the Azerbaijani Interior Ministry press service, said in a recent interview that six of the detainees had tested positive for HIV. Shortly afterwards, local media circulated a rumor that a senior official's son had contracted HIV from an LGBT person.

"A court may issue a ruling to make a person take an HIV test," lawyer Zaur Gurbanli says, "if criminal proceedings have been launched to find out if someone infected somebody else intentionally. In the case of the LGBT community, law-enforcement agencies have deemed prostitution to be a sufficient basis for those kinds of suspicions."

None of the detained people, however, received a court ruling, says Javid Nabiyev, the president of Nefes. Not everyone took a test either: neither Samir nor Murad were told they had to do it. According to official statistics provided by the Azerbaijani AIDS center, out of all officially registered HIV positive people in the country, 1.9 per cent at most contracted the virus as a result of unprotected homosexual contact.
 
Azerbaijani society and Chechen experience

Homophobic sentiment is so strong in Azerbaijan that this crackdown will most probably play into the hands of the government, rights activist Javid Nabiyev believes.

"The government needs strong arguments in order to explain themselves to the people, especially after the US Congress started discussing imposing sanctions on Azerbaijan, and the expulsion of our country from the Council of Europe is on the table. The government wants to link this pressure with LGBT arrests and use it all to say: 'The West demands that we abandon our national values, we are being pressured because we are fighting gays and transsexuals who are a danger to our society'."

Murad believes that the crackdown on gays has to do with the influx of tourists from Arab countries who are more pious than Azerbaijanis: "We were told at the police station not to show up in places where there are many tourists, and they let us understand that visitors do not like to run into gays and transsexuals."

Javid Nabiyev said that the reaction of ordinary citizens to these arrests showed that a huge part of the population backs purges against the LGBT community: "There is already a precedent for [President] Ilham Aliyev. The similar events in Chechnya, and the fact that society supported the government in doing it, were an excellent motivation for our government," Nabiyev says.

Samad Ismayilov, the editor-in-chief of Minority Magazine (which focuses on LGBT problems), says that their magazine had polled 200 people (aged between 18 and 77) in Baku streets last year about how they felt about LGBT: "75 per cent said they hated LGBT persons, 5 per cent were neutral, and 20 per cent (mainly young people) said they were okay about LGBT."

The opposition fears voters

The opposition normally closely monitors flagrant violations of human rights in Azerbaijan. In this case, however, not one political party or civic movement has commented on the arrests of gay men.

"If we had gone defending LGBT, we wouldn’t have been understood by our conservative society. And the government would have had an excellent opportunity to use it against us: 'Look,' they would have said, 'we have a million refugees, some of our people are still in Armenian captivity, but instead of defending their rights, our opposition is worried about gays and transsexuals," says Yadigar Sadigli, deputy chairman of Musavat, one of the most well-known opposition parties in this country.

"The Azerbaijani opposition is fighting the government in a society that is not prepared to recognize some global values. Our government wants to convince the people that European values are only about the 'defense of gays and transsexuals', and our society believes that this is the case," Sadigli explains.

According to information posted on two LGBT forums on Facebook, all the gay men who were detained in this campaign have now been released. This has been confirmed by human rights activists.

The war launched against them by the police, however, is only just entering its active phase – most of them have been told to leave their rented apartments, and many have been dismissed from their jobs. Even those few acquaintances that seemed to be comfortable with Murad's sexuality have now rejected him. It has never been easy to live in Azerbaijan, Murad says, but he is really scared now. "I want to leave the country, at least for a while."

Samir says that many of his friends who were taken to the police have either left the country or are waiting for their visas. Some of them are simply hiding in their parents' homes in their villages.

Thirty-three people have filed lawsuits following their illegal arrest and brutal treatment. Four defense lawyers have agreed to defend their rights in court. Human rights activists are raising funds for temporary housing for LGBT people and are in talks with the embassies of Western countries about asylum for those affected.

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