An unconfirmed number of queer people were detained and faced humiliating treatment by police in Baku last week, according to Azerbaijani queer rights groups. The police claim that the raids were conducted to crack down on prostitution.
OC Media could not independently verify how many were detained, but claims by media and rights groups range between 50–100 people or more.
On 18 September, pro-government website Haqqin.az reported the ‘detentions were made after numerous appeals by residents of the capital complaining of violations of public order’ by ‘representatives of sexual minorities engaged in prostitution’.
According to Haqqin, three Baku district police departments were involved in the raids and ‘more than 100 people were detained’.
[For more on attitudes in Azerbaijan’s media towards queer rights, read on OC Media: Azerbaijan’s media — spreading fear and hate of queer people]
Backlash from activists
The information soon spread to Azerbaijani social media. Javid Nabiyev, an Azerbaijani queer rights activist currently living in Germany, claimed on Facebook that more than 100 queer people had been arrested in Baku, later revising the number to ‘more than 50’.
Local queer rights group Minority Azerbaijan wrote that although they were unable to fully confirm the news, ‘several incidents regarding this matter have been confirmed by individuals’.
‘Suddenly, without any clear reasons to us, police officers from the Ministry of Internal Affairs organised a raid against gay and transgender people’, Nabiyev said on 22 September in a video message on Facebook.
Nabiyev, who is also the president of rights group Nefes LGBT Azerbaijan Alliance, said it was difficult to ‘identify the scale of the raids’, but ‘for sure[…] more than fifty people got arrested’. According to him, police raided places where queer people were known to gather.
One local queer person who asked not to be named told OC Media police were approaching ‘suspected queer people’ on Baku’s central Nizami Street and asking them to show identity documents. Those who didn’t have their ID cards with them were taken to police stations, he said.
On 22 September, Swedish rights group Civil Rights Defenders released a statement claiming many of those detained have been denied access to visitors or have been arrested multiple times.
According to Minority Azerbaijan, several detainees have accused police of blackmailing and attacking them, and some are still under investigation.
‘Crackdown on prostitution’
Azerbaijani police claimed the raids did not target queer people and described the arrests as a crackdown on prostitution.
A representative of the Ministry of Internal Affairs told Caucasian Knot on 20 September that there was no persecution of queer people in Azerbaijan.
‘These were not arrests, but short-term detentions. All the detainees were brought to administrative responsibility and released from police stations’, the ministry’s representative told Caucasian Knot.
Haqqin quoted the ministry's press office as saying ‘in Azerbaijan, sexual minorities have never been persecuted, but this does not mean that representatives of this category of citizens are released from responsibility for illegal acts’.
The ministry also claimed that ‘it was revealed that … many of the detainees are carriers of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV’. This was contradicted by the Azerbaijani Centre for Combating AIDS, which works under the Health Ministry.
According to the centre, none of the people detained were brought to the centre for testing, ‘nor is it clear whether they are among our registered patients’.
In 2016, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association (ILGA) accused Azerbaijan of being the ‘worst place to be gay in Europe’. Although a law forbidding same-sex sexual relations was abolished in 2000, in its 2017 annual report, ILGA said that queer people ‘continue to be faced with a near total absence of legal protection’ and claimed that a number of queer people had been ‘targeted by police raids in the capital city or blackmailed because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression’.
ILGA wrote that on 27 August 2016, several gay men, trans people, and sex workers were detained by police in raids in the centre of Baku.