New police units are to be created in Baku with the aim of fighting ‘cases contradictory to public morality’, especially sex-work. Critics say that this may be a cover for further state interference with independent social and political life.
On 2 September, Report.az cited Elshad Hajiyev, the chief spokesperson of the Baku City Main Police Department, as saying that ‘to strengthen the fight for morality and against behaviour contrary to the national mentality’, new specialised police units will be created.
‘In order to strengthen the fight against all forms and manifestations contradictory to public morality and to prevent behaviours inappropriate to our national and moral values’, he said, ‘complex prophylactic measures are being undertaken’.
According to Hajiyev, the creation of the new police units was sparked by a series of complaints made by city residents to the department, as well as police observations of the activities in and around entertainment venues and major commercial thoroughfares in Baku.
Starting in 2016, Azerbaijan saw an influx of tourists from the Arab world, and in the years since, the numbers have continued to grow, with the majority of visitors coming to Azerbaijan from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.
According to data from the Azerbaijan State Statistics Committee, from 2015–2018, the number of tourists from Iraq increased by a factor of 31, tourists from the UAE increased by a factor of 39, and Saudi Arabia — by a factor of 100.
In 2018, a video report by Iraqi blogger Ali Athab went viral in Azerbaijan. The video alleged that the inflow of Arab tourists to the country triggered a proloiferation of sex-tourism and that as a result, 8,000 Arabs had been infected with HIV.
Athab presented no evidence to back up his claims, and the Health Ministry dismissed them as ‘nonsense’. Nevertheless, the video struck a chord with many in Azerbaijan and sparked conversations over social media, many tinged with both anti-Arab and ant-sex worker sentitments.
Indeed, public outrage began as early as 2016, when Baku resident Murad Qurbanov uploaded a widely-seen video that showed Arab tourists negotiating with sex workers.
Vectors of disease and corruption
Samad Rahimli, a Baku-based lawyer, told OC Media that the police acting as defenders of public morality is not a new phenomenon for Azerbaijan. While it may seem like this function mirrors that of morality police in some Muslim countries, he says, it is actually of a different quality and far less broad. Rather, it is a continuation of Soviet-era policies.
He notes that in both Soviet Azerbaijan and following independence, Azerbaijan has included articles that regulate public ‘morality’ in both the criminal and administrative codes.
‘Both codes prohibit specific administrative violations and crimes against public morality […] And when the state prohibits these violations, it enforces these prohibitions with the help of the police’, he said.
Rahimli explained that crimes against public morality included involvement in prostitution, maintenance of brothels, and illegal storage and distribution of pornographic materials and objects.
As for the creation of special police units, Rahimli says it is a change in form but not function and that it is up to the police to decide how to structure their work. ‘When such cases appear the police must intervene’, he said.
Whether they actually intervene as they are supposed to is another question. ‘We see that in practice, the police often do not fulfil [their function as arbiters of morality] and this is because a prolonged struggle by the police and other state bodies against prostitution or other cases which contradict “public morality” is practically impossible’, he said.
The reason for this, he says, is that ‘the police in Azerbaijan are corrupt’, and frequently accepts bribes, using black market activity as a source of income rather than attempting to combat it.
However, Rahmli also points out that the very existence of these laws, regardless of whether they are enforced, has little bearing on how just or effective they are in the first place.
‘We know that both in the past and in the present, police actions in the fight against prostitution and for the preservation of public moral values had serious consequences’, he said, arguing that this simply allows them to ‘interfere in people’s personal lives’.
‘The activities that are identified as “immoral” are those that don’t harm anybody’, he said. Therefore, I believe that these issues should be left to the consideration of [the people engaged] in these acts’.
‘Should sex-workers be fought against?’
Sociologist Ahmed Mansurov told OC Media that criminalisation is not an effective way to deal with something that is, ultimately, a systemic and social phenomenon and that its dangers concern not morality but public health.
‘Society must try to accept the existence of this industry. Because we must understand the fact that the majority of sex-workers are involved in this work because of social problems’, he said. ‘If we want to reach any [positive] changes in this direction we must increase the number of social programmes, which could promote the use of condoms among sex-workers, conduct analyses on diesease vectors, and provide them with social support in the future not to multiply the problems in this direction’, he said.
Mansurov noted that creating special police units will not solve the problems in the sex industry and will on the contrary, only excacerbate them.
‘Sex-workers will try to hide more, and they will have difficulty in seeking help and support, this will limit the possibility of educational activities for them, or at least the provision of contraceptives to them […] They will be afraid to address any crisis centres or for medical help fearing their involvement in the sex industry could be revealed’, he said.
‘They will try to take away our right to freedom of assembly’
Nurlan Gakhramanli, a youth activist and journalist, told OC Media that he believed the new police units will be used against civil society and will infringe upon civil rights.
‘They [the government] try to build a new legislative basis for, for example, being able to reach people sitting in a cafe and saying that “you are engaged in immoral activities” or “you can’t gather here” ’. he said. ‘They will try to take away our right to freedom of assembly’.
Gakhramanli also says that the notion of ‘immoral activities’ is very abstract, and purposefully so.
‘When young people at the Salaam Cinema were protesting against the demolition of the building and stayed there for the night, the police accused them of committing immoral acts. Though it was not clear what those “immoral acts” were […] they didn’t specify, and simply said that you have to move out because ‘you are involved in immoral acts’, he said.
[Read more on OC Media: Activists occupy ‘historic’ building in Baku to prevent demolition]
Political expert Leyla Aliyeva, a visiting scholar at the Russian and East European Studies Centre at Oxford University, told OC Media that the new police units are ‘another step towards the establishment and strengthening of the “police state” ’.
‘By this decree, the sphere of life where police intervention would be legal will expand. […] as it was correctly noted on social networks, this decree opens up a great scope for arbitrariness, since the criteria by which they will determine whom to detain are not defined’, she said. ‘As a rule, street prostitution is only a part, and small part, of prostitution, and the main part is hidden and located in other places. And of course, it gives [the authorities] the opportunity to grab young people for one more reason, because proving anything will be difficult.’
Who will be the arbiters of morality?
Elman Guliyev, the head of the Musavat Youth Organisation, the youth wing of the Musavat opposition party, told OC Media that the Azerbaijani government tries to apply tough measures to prevent sex work and ‘public immorality’, but it neither adresses the root causes nor does it take stock of its own responsibility.
‘Naturally, the government [which has policies that create the conditions for] young girls becoming involved in prostitution and immorality does not blame itself’, he said. ‘It is an interesting fact that the police officers who have, for years, mistreated young and middle-aged girls are now trying to use their positions to make acquaintance with them — will those people now be part of the morality units?’
Guliyev also questioned the criteria used for identifying cases and people who bear a ‘threat to public morality’.
‘This decision aroused serious concerns in society. Many people think that operations that will be conducted may serve as justification for violating human rights and will inconvenience incoming tourists’, Gujiyev said. ‘As long as the laws don’t work in the country, and police arbitrariness remains unpunished, it will be impossible to fight immorality with such decisions and administrative methods’.
‘The police just wants to participate in the money exchange between Arabs and sex workers’, he concluded.