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Arrests, threats, and humiliation in Azerbaijan’s crackdown on queer people

12 October 2017
The office of the queer rights group Gender and Development (Vafa Zeynalova/OC Media)

Last month, reports emerged of the mass detention of queer people in Azerbaijan. OC Media spoke to one of the men caught up in the roundup, and a number of activists offering assistance. They tell of illegal arrests, humiliation, and even torture, as authorities continue to apply pressure.

[Read in Azerbaijani — Azərbaycan dilində oxuyun]

[Read on OC Media: Mass detention of queer people reported in Azerbaijan]

A day in the cells

Elnur (not his real name) is 20 years old. He says gay men and transgender people have been arrested across the city. ‘I think they are extorting money from them the same as happened to me. What else could the reason be?’, Elnur tells OC Media.

Elnur was taken to a police station on 18 September. That day he received a call from an unknown number. A voice offered to meet him, and interested, Elnur agreed. At the meeting spot he was approached by two men, who forced him into a car.

‘When I entered the car, two more people got in as well. They twisted my arms behind my back and said we were going to the police station’, Elnur says.

At the police station he was asked to give the names and contact information of transgender people engaged in prostitution in exchange for his release. He was taken to the cells at midnight. At nine in the morning he was fed a little and then held for one more day.

‘Once I was placed in a cell, police officers came to look at me from the whole department. There were some who listened to what I was saying, wondered how such a thing [being gay] is possible. Very ignorant people! There was a young policeman there who treated me well, then helped with my release’, he says.

Elnur was released by the evening and told to come the next day to pay a fine of ₼100 ($60). He was warned not to tell anyone about his detention. To make the matter look official, Elnur was made to write a confession that he used obscene words on the phone while talking in the street. He was threatened with court if he didn’t behave.

‘I signed the document because I thought it couldn’t harm me, it would be unlikely that such a petty case would be brought to court. But I didn’t pay the fine and don’t intend to. I'm unemployed, so don’t earn anything’, he says.

The next day, police came to Elnur’s home demanding contact details of transgender people. For two or three days his phone continued to receive calls from unknown numbers. In the end Elnur changed his number.

The official line

Prostitution is illegal in Azerbaijan, and while not a criminal offence, those found guilty still face a fine of ₼100 ($60). The head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs press service Ehsan Zahidov, said the raids and detentions of queer people were made on the basis of complaints from other citizens about their ‘night activities’.

In another statement, he claimed that the arrests were motivated by most queer people ‘being infected with AIDS’, requiring mass checks. He added that the results of such checks had ‘cause[d] serious concern’. However, the Centre for AIDS Prevention has officially denied this, saying no one was brought to them for check-ups.

Humiliated and tortured

Gulnara Mehdiyeva, a queer rights activist and editor of the first queer journal in Azerbaijan, Minority, tells OC Media that society has a distorted view of what’s happening. According to her, people have been led to believe that only transgender people engaged in prostitution are being targeted. Society largely supports the government in this, she adds, because they believe the purpose is to fight HIV.

However Mehdiyeva says police are not only targeting prostitutes, but queer people in general, adding that standard procedures during arrests are not being followed.

Another queer rights activist, who did not want to be named, agrees. He says the approximate number of people arrested (including those who have already been released) has reached a thousand people.

According to him, the arrests began with transgender sex workers in the 20 Yanvar District, on the highway.

The activist says detainees are humiliated and provoked so police can accuse them of disobedience. The cases immediately go to court ensuring that they can be legally held for 10–20 days.

Mehdiyeva also says detainees are being treated poorly. According to her, they are humiliated and insulted — a number of transgender people have reported having their hair cut off, and one was subjected to electric shock.

While the arrests have so far been predominantly of gay men and transgender people, a number of lesbian women have also noted a growing number of requests from fake social media profiles, either soliciting them to meet or threatening them.

Evictions

(Vafa Zeynalova/OC Media)

Even once released, people continue to face difficulties; the crackdown has resulted in dozens of queer people ending up on the streets, as landlords have began to evict them from rented apartments on a massive scale. ‘For example, five gay men with ordinary jobs, like a stylist, a judo teacher, a cook, etc., were thrown out of one rented apartment’, the unnamed activist says.

Chairman of queer rights group Gender and Development, Kamran Rzayev also told OC Media of the evictions. ‘Owners of apartments could always drive out a tenant if they suspected them of having an unconventional orientation, but it was not so massive before’, he says.

His organisation is the only officially registered NGO in Azerbaijan dealing with queer rights. Their activities are mainly aimed at providing healthcare, for example performing free medical tests.

Rzayev says he’s outraged by what’s happening. ‘If one of the LGBT people is a sex worker with AIDS, it doesn’t mean you should arrest everyone indiscriminately! If a woman with AIDS infects someone, will all women with AIDS be arrested?’

Rendering assistance

Mehdiyeva’s organisation primarily seeks to provide legal assistance. Lawyers working with queer rights groups have already taken up the cases of 46 of the people arrested, and 11 who have been fined. ‘In addition, we have agreed with a host organisation in Georgia to host or hide affected people’, Mehdiyeva says.

Lawyer Samad Rahimli, who is representing the detainees, says he is planning to appeal the 46 detentions. He adds that these detentions are illegal and violate the European Convention on Human Rights, in particular in regards to respect for private and family life and freedom from discrimination, torture, unlawful detentions, and unfair accusations.

Rzayev says queer people across the city are frightened, with many leaving. According to Mehdiyeva, many have already left Baku to other regions of the country, and some to Turkey. ‘Everyone is hiding, changing phone numbers. There is no guarantee that the rest will not be arrested, or that someone will not give them up, since many arrested people have faced pressure to hand over the numbers of other queer people’, she says.

[Read on OC Media: Life on the margins: Lesbian families in Azerbaijan]

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