One woman is dead and another injured in separate attacks on transgender sex workers in Azerbaijan over the past week.
Aysu Mammadli, 28, was stabbed to death on 18 June in Baku, reportedly by a client. Another was reportedly stabbed a day later but escaped with her life.
Journalist Avaz Hafizli was the first to report Mammadli’s death. Hafizli told OC Media that the Baku police informed him that Mammadli was stabbed 11 times in the head, neck, heart, and back at the home of a client in Baku’s Khatai District.
‘[They said that] in the morning, the neighbours saw traces of blood on the floor and called the police. Police broke into the flat and found the body inside. Now a murder investigation has started in the Prosecutor’s Office’, he said.
Leyla, a close friend of Mammadli’s who is transgender herself, told OC Media that Mammadli’s relatives had disowned her because of her gender identity and refused to collect her body from the morgue.
She said that a man claiming to be the killer had called friends of Mammadli and his own relatives and confessed to the crime.
Seymour Nazar, an Azerbaijani queer rights activist, told OC Media that Mammadli’s funeral on 22 June was attended by only six friends, all from the local queer community.
According to Nazar, the day after Mammadli was killed, another transgender sex worker was stabbed in Baku.
He said that after having an argument over payment with one sex worker, the man later approached the car of another transgender woman before stabbing her in the neck and the shoulder.
‘The transgender woman, protecting herself, pushed him out of her car. The next day several transgender women saw this person again in that area. That day he was arrested, and a criminal case was started against him’, he said.
Nazar described what was happening a ‘hunt’ of transgender people in Azerbaijan.
Nasimi District Police Department was unreachable for comment over the incident.
Following the incident, a social media campaign under the hashtag #transcinayətlərisiyasidir (‘transgender crimes are political’) started.
On Saturday, the Chief Prosecutor’s Office announced that they had arrested a 36-year-old man, Kenan Abdurahmanov, over Mammadli’s death.
They said a preliminary investigation had established with reasonable suspicion that Abdurahmanov, who lived in a rented house, had killed Mammadli ‘during the conflict between them’.
A spokesperson for the Baku Khatai District Police Department told local news site Oxu.Az on Monday that Abdurahmanov killed Mammadli after being attacked by her.
They said that after agreeing to pay for sex, Abdurahmanov took Mammadli to his home where he found out that she was transgender and changed his mind.
According to them, Abdurahmanov then offered to pay her ₼30 ($18), but Mammadli demanded ₼100 ($60). They claimed Mammadli then pulled out a knife and stabbed Abdurahmanov in the shoulder.
‘Enraged, Abdurrahmanov took the weapon from his attacker and struck her 11 times, as a result of which she died on the spot.’
‘Then the suspect wrapped the body in polyethene and tied it with a ribbon, but he could not get rid of it.’
‘The man fled the scene knowing that the police were already looking for him. The transgender person attracted the attention of neighbours by making noise during the conflict’, they stated.
Seymour Nazar told OC Media that friends of Mammadli believed she was not killed in Abdurahmanov’s flat but was ‘dragged’ there afterwards, citing scratches on her knees and legs.
‘The information the police gave to Oxu.Az is false’, Nazar said.
‘The allegation that the person stabbed Aysu defending himself, and that she allegedly stabbed him first, is illogical. A person cannot stab another person  times in defence’, he said.
Nazar told OC Media that two days before Mammadli’s death, she told her hairdresser that she had received death threats from her uncle.
This happened after pro-government vlogger Ata Abdullayev published a video featuring her. The video also received media coverage.
‘Despite so many suspicions about the crime, the Prosecutor’s Office has not yet investigated Aysu’s uncle’, he said.
Pressure on transgender women during COVID-19
Abdullayev, known for his questioning of Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan in Milan last year, has published a series of videos on transgender sex workers in Azerbaijan. These included following transgender sex workers around the city at night.
He had a public conflict over his activity with one transgender woman who was later sentenced to one month of administrative arrest for ‘quarantine violation charges’, according to Abdullayev.
Nazar told OC Media that the COVID-19 pandemic had put many transgender women in Azerbaijan in a difficult situation.
‘Unemployment, financial hardship, lack of access to hormonal therapy, as well as increasing physical and emotional violence and a lack of any social services and support in return have left transgender women face-to-face with their needs’, he said.
According to Nazar, transgender women often struggle to find employment in Azerbaijan, and so many resort to sex work to make ends meet.
‘Because sex work is not legally and practically protected in Azerbaijan, transgender women are always in danger. These threats have been exacerbated by rising masculine aggression during the pandemic’, he said.
[Read more on the situation in neighbouring Georgia: Transgender woman sets herself on fire in Tbilisi]
Mammadli’s friend, Leyla told OC Media, that after the murder, transgender sex workers have found themselves in great danger in Baku.
‘Ninety per cent of [transgender women] who knew Aysu are now in fear. Some of them still go out to work, and some don’t. Everybody is afraid to find themself in her place. I personally have been afraid to leave my house since the day of Aysu’s murder’, she said.