Azerbaijan: Anti-Gay Crackdown

Isa Shahmarly, former chair of the Free (Azad) LGBT group, whose experience as a gay man in Azerbaijan, drove him to suicide. In September 2017, police in Azerbaijan started a violent campaign, arresting and torturing men presumed to be gay or bisexual, as well as transgender women. © Azadliq Radiosu (RFE/RL)

Police in Azerbaijan have conducted a violent campaign, arresting and torturing men presumed to be gay or bisexual, as well as transgender women, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch interviews with released detainees and lawyers confirmed that since mid-September, police in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, have detained dozens of people on dubious charges, beating and using electric shocks on some of them to coerce bribes and information about other gay men. Government officials have not denied the crackdown, and have instead attempted to justify it on spurious morality and public health grounds.

On October 3, 2017, a lawyer representing some of the detainees told Human Rights Watch that on the evening of October 2, police began to release the detainees, and that by October 3, many had been released.

“The round-ups in Azerbaijan fit a familiar horrifying narrative that exploits so-called traditional values to justify violence against sexual and gender minorities,” said Graeme Reid, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities are targeting gay and bisexual men and transgender women using tactics that indicate an intent to continue, and widen, the crackdown.”

A thorough independent investigation is warranted, and those responsible for arbitrary arrests and, in particular, for torture and other ill-treatment should be held accountable, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch interviewed five gay men, three of whom had been detained during the September 2017 round-ups, as well as human rights activists and lawyers representing dozens of detainees in various courts in Baku.

An October 2 joint statement by the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor General’s Office confirmed that police detained 83 people in the round-ups. Lawyers Human Rights Watch spoke with confirmed the names of 45 gay and bisexual men, and transgender women, who were detained and sent by courts to up to 30 days’ administrative detention in September, along with at least 10 others who were fined and released immediately. The lawyers said that the overwhelming volume of arrests means there are many cases they are unable to address or document. The media have reported unconfirmed accounts of up to 100 arrests.

Two of the men Human Rights Watch interviewed were detained in the Organized Crime Unit, known as Bandotdel, and reported that they were tortured. According to lawyers, during court hearings at least 34 other detainees described severe ill-treatment, including beatings, and said that police forced them to sign false statements. The lawyers said that police had shaved the heads of transgender women detainees.

The Azerbaijan government decriminalized same-sex conduct in 2000, but there are no officially registered or operational LGBT groups. The government also has a long record of using bogus chargesto jail or fine government critics, whom police in some cases physically abuse in custody, Human Rights Watch said.

Lawyers representing people rounded up told Human Rights Watch that there were numerous procedural violations in their cases. Police pressured detainees to sign statements refusing the services of a lawyer, telling them that hiring a lawyer would only make their situation worse. The detainees were not allowed access to lawyers before and during their hearings, and were able to access lawyers only after they decided to appeal their administrative detention sentences.

Lawyers said that their clients were all charged with “disobeying police orders,” an administrative offense that may result in a custodial sentence for up to 30 days. The October 2 joint statement by the Interior Ministry and Prosecutor General’s Office said that some were arrested on charges of “petty hooliganism” for allegedly initiating arguments with people who declined solicitations for sex. It also said that 56 detainees were issued administrative detention sentences, while 18 others were fined and nine were issued warnings.

Administrative trials in Azerbaijan are perfunctory, rarely lasting longer than 15 minutes, and judges’ decisions of guilt rely almost exclusively on police testimony. Although administrative offenses can and often do result in jail time, defendants in administrative trials are not guaranteed a lawyer of their choosing and they cannot mount an effective defense, Human Rights Watch said.

In addition, one of the lawyers said that while the official charge is listed as disobeying police orders, “In some written official materials at the police stations, I saw that police had written that these individuals were gay or transgender, and that they were arrested on sidewalks as they were shouting or arranging sex work.” Sex work is illegal in Azerbaijan, but Human Rights Watch is not aware of any the detainees having been charged with this offense.

Lawyers said that the majority of the 45 detainees they have tracked were sentenced to between five and 20 days detention, but that some were sentenced to 30 days, and most have been fined the maximum amount under the disobedience charges, 200 ANZ (US$117).

The October 2 joint statement said the roundups aimed to “identify individuals who offer paid intimate services to local citizens and foreign tourists in evenings in the central parts of the city... violate public order by insulting those who refuse these services and causing a dispute, as well as to check whether they are carriers of skin and venereal diseases.”

On September 27, Ehsan Zahidov, spokesman for the Internal Affairs Ministry, said that police were responding to complaints from Baku residents that gay men were visible on the streets. Zahidov also sought to justify the Baku round-ups on public health grounds, claiming that the arrests were meant to “prevent dangerous contagious diseases from spreading.” He claimed that gay men arrested were tested for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and syphilis.

The director of the AIDS Center of Azerbaijan, Natig Zulfugarov, said no tests were conducted there and that it would be against the law for the police to have such tests conducted without a court order. According to detainees’ lawyers, police had not obtained such orders. Some of the detainees confirmed to their lawyers that they were taken to the Skin Diseases Dispensary, a small clinic in central Baku that is known for carrying out sexually transmitted infection tests, but not HIV tests.

A member of the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan is obligated to abide by the European Convention on Human Rights ban on discrimination – including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity – torture, and arbitrary detention. Azerbaijan is also a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which include similar obligations.

In addition, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has deemed that deprivation of liberty is arbitrary when it takes place “for reasons of discrimination based on…sexual orientation; or disability or other status, and which aims towards or can result in ignoring the equality of human rights.” The Working Group has noted that police often round up LGBT people on the basis of their appearance alone, and urged governments to pay specific attention to avoid arbitrary arrests and detention of people based on their sexual orientation under laws that vaguely prohibit public indecency.

While the protection of public health is a legitimate interest of the state, it cannot justify the arbitrary detention of dozens of gay men and transgender women. Forcibly testing people for medical conditions violates international human rights standards.

“Official justifications for this anti-gay crackdown are as bogus and dangerous as the charges police have used to arrest people,” Reid said. “The government’s human rights and public health obligations mean they should focus on protecting and empowering this marginalized minority, not humiliating and isolating them.”

Vicious Crackdown

In recent years, the government of Azerbaijan has waged an increasingly vicious crackdown on critics and dissenting voices. The space for independent activism, critical journalism, and opposition political activity has been virtually extinguished by the arrests and convictions of many activists, human rights defenders, and journalists, as well as by laws and regulations restricting the activities of independent groups and their ability to secure funding. Independent organizations and activists in Azerbaijan are struggling to survive.

In its 2016 review of Azerbaijan, the UN Human Rights Committee expressed concern about “discrimination and violence against persons on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity, including within the family and by police and prison officials…and extortion of money from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons in some police stations in return for not disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

There are no officially registered or operational LGBT groups, and the behavior of authorities in September 2017, both in targeting and justifying a crackdown on sexual minorities in the country, has decimated their hopes for basic security and survival.

Harassment and Arrests

One of the five gay men interviewed, “Ramin,” who, like others interviewed, is identified by a pseudonym for their protection, told Human Rights Watch: “On September 19, my friend received a Whatsapp message that a gay guy, whom he did not know before, wanted to meet him to have sex. When he went to the agreed-upon place in the city center, he was taken away by police immediately.”

“Vusal,” a 27-year-old gay man, said: “On September 18, two people in plain clothes knocked on my door in the afternoon. It was the house where several of us gay guys lived together. The officers [pretended] they were repairmen who were to fix something. It was daytime, so I opened the door. They stormed in together with several other men and took me to the police station.”

“Elgiz,” a 21-year-old gay man in Baku told Human Rights Watch he was at his male partner’s apartment alone on September 20 when the landlord knocked on the door. He could see from the window that a dozen men were standing in the yard below, so he decided not to answer the door. “Then suddenly I saw my partner knocking at the door,” he said.

“He was handcuffed, and several men were holding him. I had no way out, so I opened the door.” Ten plain-clothes officers entered the apartment and pushed Elgiz to the ground, punching and slapping him on the face, stomach, and back. “Both my partner and I were dragged away to police cars. They briefly searched the house and confiscated my computer, and took us to the Organized Crime Unit.”

And “Taleh,” a 26-year-old gay man said that on September 18, six plain-clothes officials demanded to see his and his friends’ identification documents when they were sitting in central Baku’s Fountain Square. “We had heard that there were some raids on gays, and I had ID with me, so I showed it,” he said. “[An officer] looked very closely at my face and told me that I am gay.” He was not arrested, but the officers took his three friends to a police station because they did not have their identity documents with them. He said that two were still being held as of September 29, while one was released after paying a fine for the disobedience charge.

Later that night, on his way home