Regime bulldozers take gloss off euro-pop festival
Serious human rights violations in Azerbaijan have harmed the image of Europe's yearly festival of camp pop - Eurovision.
If Irish twins Jedward or French singer Anggun make finals in Baku in May to sing lines such as "never been in love so deep before" and "in my heart, in my mind I see you and I" viewers might spare a thought for families whose homes were destroyed to make the city look nice on TV.
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"I woke up because the building was shaking and I could hear something like thunder. I took the kids and went outside. [I went to] the official in charge and asked him to give us time to take our belongings out. He looked at me and said: 'OK.' But in the next moment he said to the bulldozer: 'Break it down!'," forty-six-year-old mother-of-two Arzu Adigezalova told Human Rigts Watch on events one night last October.
A few moments later the building collapsed and most of her possessions were lost in the rubble.
Authorities last year also bulldozed the office of human rights activist Leyla Yunus after she spoke out against the evictions.
The US-based NGO in a report entitled They Took Everything from Me has documented dozens of cases of illegal expropriation in four Baku neighborhouds to make way for parks, roads, luxury housing and a shopping mall next to the new-build Crystal Hall finals venue.
"The Azerbaijani government is not just demolishing homes, it's destroying peoples' lives," Human Rights Watch analyst Jane Buchanan said.
Buchanan wants the Swiss-based European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which runs Eurovision, to lobby authorities to stop abuses. But she is unlikely to get her way.
Eurovision spokesowman Michelle Roverelli told EUobserver by phone also on Wednesday that she feels sorry for the victims. But she added: "The song contest is a non-political event. It's not about evictions. It is about entertainment. We go in, we do our show, and then we move onto another country ... We cannot fight for these people."
Oil-rich Azerbaijan, which got the show because it won Eurovision last year, is ruled by the frightening Alyiev clan.
It beats up protesters and jails and tortures anti-government activists and journalists - two people died in suspicious circumstances in police custody last year. Its last elections in 2010 were described by the Vienna-based watchdog, the OSCE, as a farce.
Meanwhile, the Eurovision 2012 website is full of puff-pastry PR.
Its brief history of Azerbaijan talks about its "rich and versatile" cuisine and says it is "one of the top 10 developing countries of the world," but says nothing on repression.
Its page on the Crystal Hall hosts a number of readers' comments such as "OMG, REALLY AMAZING" and "Wow! This looks really good : )."
Eurovision's Roverelli said the EBU has asked authorities to improve conditions for media. "We spoke to the president, we organised journalist workshops and we want to team up with the Council of Europe [a Strasbourg-based human rights body]," she told this website.
She added the contest-related spotlight on Azerbaijan is in itself doing good: "A number of NGOs are using this as a platform to voice their concerns. Had we not been in Baku, nobody would have bothered to pick up on the HRW [Human Rights Watch] report."
The 56-year old competition has a history of unwanted political controversy.
In 2009, Georgia complained that finals in Russia were inappropriate because Russia invaded it the year before, while Russian gay rights groups cried out over state-sponsored homophobia. In 2005, a Ukrainian rapper annoyed Russia because his lyrics championed the 2004 anti-Kremlin Orange Revolution.
Further back, the contest was also held under Franco's dictatorship in Spain and in Yugoslavia on the brink of war.