The voice on the other end of the telephone line was loud and yet cautious. At first, there was much hesitation to talk, but once we discussed my desire to write a story, the voice softened, and so began a two-and-a-half-hour-long conversation with Kristina, a transgender woman from Azerbaijan who now lives in Turkey.
29 year old Kristina was born and raised in Baku. She was arrested in 2013 on bogus drug charges, and held in pretrial detention for almost a year. Afterward, she decided to leave the country for Istanbul to pursue a romantic relationship.
She occasionally visits Baku, where her parents still live.
But not everyone is as lucky as Kristina.
Not everyone in Azerbaijan’s LGBTQ community is able to find refuge outside the country. Many of them survive on personal connections and tightly - knit support mechanisms. Government assistance of any kind, whether legal or social, is nonexistent, and often little can be done when the rights of LGBTQ individuals are violated. Not surprisingly, ILGA-Europe (the European Region of the International Lesbian and Gay Association), in its most recent survey ranked Azerbaijan as the worst country in Europe for LGBTQ individuals to live in.
Thieves' Law: A Different Kind of Law
The morning she left her home one day in November of 2013, Kristina felt she might not come back home.
She was headed out of town when a friend called her on the phone and asked for help. When Kristina’s friend changed their meeting-place twice that day, it triggered Kristina’s suspicions. When Kristina arrived at the meeting-place, a police car was parked nearby. She opened the door, and asked the officers about her friend. They told her to get in. She followed the order, afraid of the consequences if she were to not do so.
“We started driving and . . . on yet another turn, I realized where they were taking me: Police Station No. 27.” Kristina’s memories at the police station are still very vivid: she claims she was belittled and threatened with rape by a baton. She was pressed with drug charges, and forced to accept them.
“They wouldn’t budge. I told them it was a lie. I told them I wouldn’t sign the papers. I told them their allegations were false and that they were simply trying to lock me up. Even their description of where they found the alleged drugs was false. I was wearing a skirt that day, and yet police claimed they found drugs in the back pocket of my jeans,”recalls Kristina. s
Kristina was eventually sentenced to pretrial detention and taken to Baku’s Kurdakhani Detention Center, a pretrial holding facility. But in the courtroom that day, she swore she would prove her innocence. In the meantime, Kristina had to survive for the next ten months in a male detention facility as a transwoman.
“Once you are inside, and you know you won’t be getting out any time soon, you readjust yourself. You learn to act by ‘thieves’ law,” she said in reference to the traditional code of conduct for organized criminal groups in former Soviet republics.
“And, according to that law, we were the prison’s ‘ladies.’ Some prisoners adored us, and they would send us cigarettes and love notes.”
And there was romance, too. But in between these encounters in prison, Kristina had to prove her innocence, and, so, she started learning about her rights and how to defend herself in court.
Kurdakhani is a mixed-gender prison divided into several units. Kristina lived in the males’ unit despite her professed gender, but was placed on a different floor with “the rest of the girls,” as Kristina terms the other transwomen herself. And it was all bearable, she recounts: The conditions and food were just fine.
What was not fine were the homophobic, religious conservatives other inmates who had very little tolerance for prisoners like Kristina. “They were aggressive; mostly verbally abusive, but it was unpleasant, to say the least, and often scared some of us, especially the first-timers.”
The Fine Line between a Detention Facility and Prison
“Trans and gay inmates were in charge of all the cleaning, and any other work that required physical labor. Sometimes they would even do construction work. They would pick up the trash every morning from the cells,” recalls a former political prisoner who asked not to be named. “When there was no work, they would remain in their cells. When I served my time, there were about 20-25 of them. Once I struck up a conversation with one of them. I asked him where he was from, for what crime he had been imprisoned but as soon as he saw other inmates approaching, he left,” he remembers.
He added that just talking to gay or transgender inmates in prison can cost one respect and acceptance in the prison block.
Unlike the detention facility in Kurdakhani, prisons had a different set of “thieves’ laws.” In Kurdakhani, prisoners who managed to get themselves scheduled work had the chance to serve food or perform other jobs for small pay. That money was used, in turn, to buy goods from the prison canteen, Kristina said.
However, the transgender and gay prisoners received no salary for the services they provided in prison.
In its 2007 report, ILGA- Europe (the European Region of the International Lesbian and Gay Association) concluded that the general situation in prison facilities in Azerbaijan was disastrous and that torture and ill treatment were common practices in places of pre-trial detention, and to a lesser extent in post-conviction prison facilities. Gays and transgender individuals are forcibly segregated and face regular abuse from other inmates and prison guards.
The male political prisoner interviewed by Meydan TV confirmed the division between homosexual and heterosexual prisoners, and described the attitude toward them.
“Everyone treats them badly, which is a small mirror into Azerbaijani society as a whole. And overall, whenever there was a disagreement or a fight, guards would always take the side of the heterosexual convicts. In our zone [holding facility], 90% of the convicts had a negative attitude toward the homosexual prisoners. Moreover, it was not safe to even be seen talking to a homosexual prisoner; being labeled is easy in prison," he remembers.
Being LGBTI in Azerbaijan: Little Prospect For Change
In September 2015, the European Parliament passed a resolution in which it expressed its “extreme concern” over the situation of LGBTI people in Azerbaijan, and condemned “political hate speech against LGBTI people coming in from the highest levels” and “called on the Azerbaijan government to stop obstructing and intimidating human rights defenders working for the rights of LGBTI people”.
There is little legislative support for members of the LGBTI community in the country. When 20-year-old Isa Shahmarli, gay rights activist and founder of AZAD - a LGBTI NGO in Azerbaijan - committed suicide in 2014, a wave of concern spread through the country’s civil society. However, little has changed.
Azerbaijan decriminalized homosexuality in 2001 in order to join the Council of Europe, but, in 2010, Council of Europe discussions on sexual discrimination and same-sex marriage were boycotted and protested against in the country. This suggested to many observers that the government is unlikely to take steps to properly protect the rights of gay and transgender Azerbaijanis.
The legal and financial limitations organizations that do take on the task of LGBT related issues in the country face a series of tough laws that make it difficult to spread or raise awareness to the plight of LGBTI peoples in Azerbaijan.
As a result, many members of Azerbaijan's LGBTI community choose to instead leave the country.