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“We don’t want to be invisible”: the meaning of Azerbaijan’s LGBT purge

In late September Azerbaijan’s police rounded up and detained dozens of LGBT people. What explains this sudden crackdown?

Police van in central Baku, September 2017. Image still via Euro Vision Social Newswire / YouTube. Some rights reserved.

In late September Azerbaijan’s police force began rounding up LGBT people, and those perceived to be such, across the country. On 2 October, police released all detainees, while admitting that 83 had been detained (LGBT rights activists estimate their number at 150-200). The events led to widespread international condemnation, but this story isn’t over — not least for the young men and women whose lives may never be the same.

In the weeks since the crackdown, several LGBT people have either left the capital of Baku, or fled the country altogether (reportedly to Russia and Turkey). Harassment of LGBT people continued into October in the country’s second-largest city of Ganja. After detaining and strip-searching LGBT people, local police “warned [gay and transgender people] to leave the city, where they are not wanted” alleged Minority, the country’s only LGBT magazine, in a tweet on 14 October.

Azerbaijani society is so intolerant towards LGBT people that the country was declared “the worst place to be gay in Europe”

Homosexuality was decriminalised in Azerbaijan in 2000. However, public attitudes have yet to change: LGBT people remain largely defenceless against hate crimes and hate speech. In January 2014, Isa Shahmarli, founder of the Azad LGBT network, took his own life by hanging himself with a rainbow flag. In his final note, the prominent activist blamed society for his death. Such are the levels of Azerbaijani society’s revulsion towards LGBT people that the country was declared “the worst place to be gay in Europe” in the 2016 Rainbow Index. 

In this atmosphere, it’s no surprise if some Azerbaijanis turned a blind eye to the crackdown. But what explains the detentions and humiliations in the first place? And what could a country which lavishes millions on its international image have conceivably gained from an anti-LGBT crackdown?

Contagion and contempt

Baku still dismisses any accusations from human rights organisations of systematic pressure against gay, lesbian and transgender people. Its spokesmen first declared that the detentions were carried out in the interests of public health. Azerbaijan’s interior ministry and the prosecutor general’s office released a joint statement on 2 October that raids in the capital targeted people accused of “offering unsolicited sexual services to locals and tourists, violating public order and spreading infectious diseases.”

The authorities’ statement also claimed that of those detained, six had AIDS, a further six were HIV-positive, and 16 had syphilis. The stats quickly became confused, as reports emerged that AIDS centres were denying having conducted any medical examinations. Pro-government media went even further, claiming that all those detained had sexually-transmitted diseases. Whatever the discrepancies, the authorities concluded that urgent measures to protect public health had to be taken. 

Young Azerbaijanis at the waterfront in Baku, 2005. Photo (c): Dmitry Korobeynikov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

In an interview for EurasiaNet, spokesman for Azerbaijan’s interior ministry Ehsan Zaidov, cited the aforementioned claims as proof that public concerns about the LGBT community were entirely justified. He also added that LGBT people among the Azerbaijani population “[do] not fit in our nation, our state, and our mentality.”

This isn’t the first time police have rounded up LGBT people in Baku. Law enforcement personnel have often conducted AIDS tests upon detaining transgender, gay or lesbian people. What was remarkable about the crackdown in September was its sheer scale, aggression and systematic nature — police arrested people on the street, while others were reportedly tortured and forced to confess their involvement in the sex trade.

Spirited away 

Officials state that the police operation lasted for 15 days, from 15-30 September, while local lawyers state it began a day earlier. On 14 September, plainclothes police entered nightclubs and bars to detain LGBT people. Reports soon emerged that police had been approaching LGBT people on streets and the parks across Baku and demanded that they leave — and fast. In short, they were to become invisible.

The first three days alone saw the arrest of over 100 people, 56 of whom were arrested and sentenced to administrative detention of 10-30 days by district courts. Some 18 were fined, and nine received verbal warnings. Others were held by police with no formalities whatsoever. 

“They lined us up outside the front door of the police station and ordered us not to show our faces on Torgovaya Street [now called Nizami Street - ed.] or any other touristic areas after 10-11 PM,” one gay man who was detained in central Baku tells me. September, it should be mentioned, is not tourist season in Azerbaijan.

Some were luckier. One gay man told me that he was outside when his flatmates were taken into custody: “I went out to buy groceries and heard my friend yelling from the balcony, telling me to run away, as [the police] had come for us. I hid in a hen-house all night,” he says. When he returned, the flat had been turned upside-down. The landlord then evicted the man and his friends.

“I was shocked,” began one trans woman who described the humiliation endured after her trial. Detained while dining at Baku’s Hard Rock Café, she was forced to undergo a blood test on suspicion of carrying an infectious disease. Police then shaved off her hair to make her “look like a man”. This isn’t uncommon experience for trans people in Azerbaijan. Despite having undergone male-to-female surgery, many trans women in Azerbaijan are still registered as male on their national identity cards, a gender identity to which they must conform. To date, only one trans woman has succeeded in changing the gender on her passport. 

Many LGBT people are now afraid of venturing out in public — they fear being trapped by the police and being taken into custody once more

Transgender and transsexual people have been particularly hard-hit in the latest crackdown, and several have left Azerbaijan or returned to their families (if their relatives still accept them). “We don’t want to be invisible,” one told me from a neighbouring country, “We will not die. People will speak of us even after we are gone.”

“The psychological condition of these people is not good,” sighs Javid Nabiyev, chair of the Nefes (Breathe) LGBT rights organisation. The prospects that they’ll get the help they need in Azerbaijan are dim indeed. However, Matanat Azizova, chair of the Gender Crisis Centre, sees the crackdown as a “clear violation of human rights”, adding that Azerbaijan is obliged to comply with European conventions on human rights and its own constitution, which proclaims the “equality of all people”. 

Thanks to rising international pressure from early October, the detained people in Baku eventually walked free. But many LGBT people are now afraid of venturing out in public — and even more afraid of meeting unfamiliar people. As Nabiyev puts it, they fear being trapped by the police and taken into custody once more.

There’s also the fact that alongside the beatings and verbal abuse, many detained people were released only after giving names and addresses of other LGBT people in Baku. These contacts were then arrested in turn.

So, the pretexts for this police operation seem as wide-ranging as the crackdown itself. But what, exactly, are the likely motives?

A crackdown without a cause?

Responding to a letter by Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe’s commissioner on human rights, Azerbaijan’s interior minister Ramil Üsübov dismissed the idea that the detentions were linked to the detainees’ sexual orientation or gender identity, declaring that “the situation [for LGBT rights] in Azerbaijan is not fundamentally different from the rest of Europe”. His explanation reiterated nearly all the justifications offered by officials since detentions started.

Alongside “health concerns”, Azerbaijan’s interior ministry has also cited appeals from Baku residents as a reason for the police operation (human rights defenders have disputed this claim). One official justification for the numerous detentions and arrests was that those under scrutiny resisted arrest or disturbed the public order. Indeed, the interior ministry included “hooliganism” as a factor in its recent statement.

“The situation [for LGBT rights] in Azerbaijan is not fundamentally different from the rest of Europe”, says interior minister Ramil Üsübov. Photo courtesy of MeydanTV. All rights reserved.

“The official accusations against them are unfounded, and the victims say that they’ve done nothing except follow the orders of police officers,” Samad Rahimli, a Baku-based lawyer involved in defending the detainees, tells me. All those whom I interviewed for this article confirmed that the police did not specify the exact reason for their detention while they were in custody.

“I was told by the police that I had been disrupting public order. I couldn’t fathom how. We were just chatting among ourselves on Torgovaya Street,” recalls one gay man, adding that he was then rebuked by the police for “asking too many questions”.

Another gay man tried to find out more during his detention at Baku’s main police department, to which officers responded that “everything [he knew] was just a rumour, and that the operation [was] an order from above.”

Police also explained the crackdown by accusing those targeted of being sex workers, stressing their “immorality”

Police also explained the crackdown by accusing those targeted of being sex workers, stressing their “immorality”. As Azerbaijan’s Interior Minister went on to say in an interview with Lent.Az that those “working at nights” caused the most public concern. This ties in with another possibility — that the crackdown was the result of an appeal from Baku residents (Ministry of Interior said this, but human rights defenders have disputed the claim). 

In at least 57 cases known to lawyers, LGBT detainees were accused not of engaging in sex work, but resisting police officers in their line of duty. 

Prostitution is illegal in Azerbaijan and is punishable by a fine — police raids against sex workers are routine in the capital. Operating brothels and pimping are criminal offences which can land the defendant with a prison sentence. Yet it’s important to note that such activities are far from limited to the country’s LGBT community and its alleged “immorality”. 

“We don’t deny that there are many transgender people among Azerbaijan’s sex workers,” explains Gulnara Mehdiyeva, an activist for Nefest and editor of Minority. “However, they are often obliged to get involved in it,” continues Mehdiyeva, noting that LGBT people are often excluded from many sectors of the labour market. 

For most sex workers in the country, the legal fine of 100 Manat (£45) is essentially a bribe to police to avoid arrest. Most detainees I spoke to confirmed that they had been fined 100-150 Manat, though Minority states some individuals have been fined 1,000-3,000 Manat (£450-1,350).

“There’s no legal documentation of any of these fines,” explains Samad Ismayilov, one of the founders of Minority. “The aim was just to extort and terrorise people.”

Even if one accepts the police explanation that the raid was launched first and foremost against sex workers, activists estimate that machinery of state soon turned towards another 150-200 LGBT people. They worked in the most diverse professions — teachers and housekeepers, bakers and hairdressers. 

Mehdiyeva points out that many police probably can’t tell the difference between sex workers and LGBT people — let alone between transgender, transsexual and gay people. This arbitrariness is as dangerous as targeted acts of discrimination, and pours no less oil on an already raging fire. 

Rumours 

A transgender woman insulted a minister passing by in his car. Transgender people beat the son of an influential Arab businessman. A government official’s son received a sexually transmitted disease after a night on the town. These are just some of the rumours which have been swirling around Baku since mid-September. Everybody’s reading the tea leaves here. Some even believe the crackdown is just one manifestation of intra-elite rivalries.

This much is certain: Azerbaijan’s LGBT community is a group nobody is willing to defend, and a group which nearly everybody hates. They’re a symbol of “western decadence” for conservatives and traditionalists, whom Azerbaijan’s government is eager to appease in its delicate dance between the west and the rest. After all, Baku has always been cautious in its dealings over the LGBT community — having to show (nominal) progress on human rights to European partners, without irritating a conservative electorate.

Rainbow Azerbaijan. An illustration by Leyla Ali for Minority Azerbaijan, the country’s only LGBT-interest publication. Photo: Facebook / Minority Azerbaijan.

And while the politics of homophobia in the South Caucasus is riven with geopolitical divides, not all LGBT people are automatically activists who feel compelled to pick a side. Indeed, most Azerbaijani LGBT people I interviewed did not seem particularly interested in the political situation in Azerbaijan. They wanted to keep their heads down and get on with their lives — their principal concern being that the country’s police interfered in those lives far too easily. Even those who somehow believed Azerbaijan to be democratic state saw this as “surprising”. 

Azerbaijan’s LGBT community never posed a political threat to the regime — many want to keep their heads down and get on with life

Indeed, Azerbaijan’s LGBT community has never posed a political threat to the regime — indeed, when politically expedient they have been showcased to the international community as a symptom of a newly westernised Azerbaijan. Never was this clearer than in 2012, when Baku hosted the Eurovision Song Contest, widely perceived by Azerbaijanis as “gay-friendly”. 

One could well ask whether the LGBT community have any friends in Azerbaijani politics whatsoever. When approached for comment, several of Azerbaijan’s opposition politicians did not seem willing to engage with the topic. Isa Gambar, former leader of Müsavat, the country’s largest opposition party, said that he remained sceptical of both the interior ministry’s statements on the detention and the accounts of human rights defenders (the party’s current leader Arif Hajili made no statement on the detentions). Leader of the National Council of Democratic Forces and former presidential candidate Jamil Hasanli is less equivocal — he sees the detentions as the act of a police state, and states that his political platform has no interest in citizens’ personal lives. 

One theory is that a crackdown on the beleaguered LGBT community was a useful gesture in the government’s attempts to build bridges with a conservative Muslim electorate. In 2011, 92% of self-described Azerbaijani Muslims believed homosexuality to be morally wrong (although it is important to note that 93% of Azerbaijani society at large held the same view). Nevertheless, Azerbaijanis of all faiths and none took to social media to support the actions of the police — calling on them to “burn” LGBT people in their social media comments.

Look, a bird!

Finally, there’s the timing. On 12 September, Baku’s police chief Mirgafar Seyidov became the first Azerbaijani citizen to wind up on the Global Magnitsky List, thus subject to western sanctions in response to corruption and human rights abuses.

Crucially, early September also saw the publication of a new OCCRP investigation on Azerbaijan’s laundromat — a slush fund which laundered nearly $3 billion to pay for the luxurious lifestyles of the Azerbaijani elite and their extensive lobbying efforts abroad. In response, Baku blocked the OCCRP’s website and slammed the report as “absurd”. By 23 September, hundreds of opposition activists were protesting in Baku, enraged by the new allegations.

Given that these revelations were probably quite embarrassing for several government officials, it’s not impossible that “a nice little war” was in order — to prove the authorities’ popular credentials and deflect public outrage.

It’s not impossible that “a nice little war” was in order — to deflect public outrage from yet more embarassing revelations about the corruption of Azerbaijan’s elite

Historian Altay Göyüşov also wrote in a 25 September Facebook post that launching a crackdown during the Islamic holy month of Muharram also had a certain resonance — perhaps a message of support for conservative Azerbaijanis’ worldview. 

These detentions have also been widely compared to the brutal anti-gay purges in Chechnya earlier this year, which saw dozens of gay men detained, assaulted, and tortured. Authorities allegedly encouraged “honour killings” across the territory. 

“It’s totally similar,” argues Nabiyev, adding that “the government is just trying to publicly make an excuse for western sanctions against Azerbaijan, taking this opportunity to demonstrate that mainstream opinion still supports the government [and vice versa].” 

“Should any sanctions be intensified in future, the government can then imply that they were imposed due to pressure on gay people [and they may be held responsible],” predicts Nabiyev. 

It seems that other authoritarian governments may have followed Baku’s lead — news recently surfaced that Tajikistan has drawn up a list of gay and lesbian citizens. The justification? Public health concerns. 

There may be many explanations for what happened in Baku, and what may still be happening in other cities across Azerbaijan. What is all too clear is that the short-term goals from harassing a widely-reviled sexual minority outweigh the international costs. It would seem that in Azerbaijan LGBT people simply remain too easy to hate — and for the authorities, too tempting a target.

About the author

Lamiya Adilgizi is a freelance journalist from Azerbaijan. She has written for several international publications including BBC, Al Jazeera, EurasiaNet, IWPR and Today's Zaman.


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