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LGBT people are being detained and beaten in Azerbaijan

We’ve obtained a report which details trans women and gay men being severely beaten by police

Last week, Azerbaijani queer rights activist Javid Nabiyev posted a video on Facebook, in which he revealed that a series of police raids disproportionately aimed at LGBTQ+ people had been carried out in Baku, the country’s capital, over a series of days.

“So many people have contacted me about the arrests, so I decided to make a video with all the information that I have for now,” he said, before revealing that friends and victims had reached out to say they had been beaten, threatened with penalties and forced to have their heads shaven. Reports vary, but most agree that at least 50 LGBTQ+ people have been detained, with some sources claiming more than 100.

In the days since the video was released, Nabiyev has been busy compiling a comprehensive report on the situation in more detail, which Dazed has since requested and obtained.

Alongside legal information, the report features statements (given anonymously) from a handful of victims. One is a trans woman who said police beat her so badly that there was “almost no unharmed spot” left on her body. Another, who self-identifies as a feminine gay man, reveals that he was beaten until he lost consciousness during his two-day detention. Officers also used threat tactics to gain the contact details of the friends of victims, and have since created fake social media profiles to lure in new victims.

“A trans woman who said police beat her so badly that there was ‘almost no unharmed spot’ left on her body”

It had already been reported that the MIA (Ministry of Internal Affairs) had responded to pressure by activists in the country, explaining that the raids were not a specific attack on LGBTQ people, but sex workers. “In our country, sex minority members have never been persecuted,” an insider linked to the MIA said to online news site Caucasian Knot.

This is not strictly true. Same-sex sexual activity was legalised in 2000, but reports of queer people – particularly gay male sex workers – being beaten and abused in police custody were still being reported just a year later. Index on Censorship also reports frequently that journalists – particularly independent, investigative journalists – are still subjected to heavy censorship and, in extreme cases, torture and abduction. This work is needed to uncover injustice, particularly because legislation largely ignores the existence of LGBTQ+ people. There are no laws to protect minorities from hate crimes or discrimination in the workplace, whereas reports of trans people being denied access to healthcare have been reported. It is still not possible to legally change the gender marker on official documentation.

The source continues: “However, [sex minority members] are not exempt from liability for unlawful acts. Recently, people of non-traditional sexual orientation engaged in prostitution regularly gather in [the centre of the city] and violate public order. Citizens repeatedly appealed to the police with a request to stop such illegal actions. In this regard, the police have taken measures.” He then added that all detainees had been released from police stations.

In Azerbaijan, sex work is illegal but is treated as a such a low-level crime that it is punishable only by a fine. Pimps and brothel owners can face prison time, but the MIA source is not referring to this – he is referring to sex workers operating in public, which the law implies is a petty crime at best. A petty crime does not warrant the violence, attacks and threats which have been reported over the last week.

Put simply, this is a crackdown on sex workers which is rooted in homophobia and a determination to make life more difficult for the most marginalised members of society. Cultural attitudes in Azerbaijan are deeply homophobic, to the extent that it was last year named the worst place in Europe to be gay. Furthermore, politicians in major parties have been known to be openly homophobic without hesitation. In his original video, Nabiyev quoted Ayaz Efendiyev, Deputy Chairman of the Justice Party, as saying that queer people are “creatures, who are sources of immorality, dangerous diseases and who have been cursed by God.”

“In his original video, Nabiyev quoted Ayaz Efendiyev, Deputy Chairman of the Justice Party, as saying that queer people are ‘creatures, who are sources of immorality, dangerous diseases and who have been cursed by God’”

It’s fair to assume that these attitudes also filter into domestic life, making queer people more likely to be disowned, abused or made homeless by their families. The parallels between these reports and the recent atrocities in Chechnya are impossible to ignore. It is, therefore, worth mentioning that family members of the victims in Chechnya were encouraged to carry out ‘honour killings’. The Head of the Chechen Republic later stated in a televised interview that he would turn a blind eye if this were to happen. Furthermore, the journalists responsible for uncovering the atrocities were forced to flee the country for their own safety or robbed of official documents and faced with deportation. These various factors mean that we rarely know the full extent of the corruption still ongoing in countries across the world.

The report continues, revealing that victims of the raids were forced into intrusive medical examinations – a fact first brought to light by the Ministry of Health’s Centre for Combatting Aids. Ehsan Zahidov, a press officer for the MIA, said on September 24th that no such thing had happened. He retracted his statement a day later, saying that the information had been ‘favourable’. Legally, all examinations should be reported to the Centre for Combatting Aids and conducted on the premises, meaning that police officers had breached protocol. This is, without doubt, a hint that more serious corruption is also going ‘officially’ unreported.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs may be arguing that this isn’t an LGBTQ-specific crackdown, but it is. The first, most obvious sign is that their press officer is content to release statements saying that residents had complained “that such people walk around us, walk in our streets and sit in our cafés. ‘These are people who do not fit our nation, our state, our mentality.” This implies a deep-rooted intolerance which, when combined with a lack of legal protections and the fact that sex work is a disproportionately LGBTQ+ industry, makes these raids an example of human rights violations aimed squarely at queer people.

There’s a lot of information to unpack but, unlike the global outrage sparked by Chechnya, this situation is being left to human rights defenders in the country. Nabiyev is just one of many valuable activists working hard to dig deeper, and uncover the discrimination – both documented and undocumented – that continues to work violently against queer people across the world. He says that financial support is needed to pay lawyers to pursue these appeals, whereas media support is crucial to highlight these injustices. Global intervention worked (to some extent) to help the victims of Chechnya – we need to be paying these equally horrific human rights violations the same level of attention.