Azerbaijan announced on Monday the completion in its capital, Baku, of a sparkling new 25,000-capacity arena for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest – but rights workers say scores of families were kicked out of their homes to make way for it.
“Hundreds of people were evicted from the adjacent territory in complete contradiction of Azerbaijani law,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher for Human Rights Watch, an international rights watchdog.
“Many of them were forced out quite brutally in the middle of the night…in a couple of documented cases bulldozers arrived at 5 a.m. and started work while people were in the buildings,” he told RIA Novosti.
He also said those evicted from the Flag Square were offered inadequate compensation.
“They forced us to leave illegally,” former Flag Square resident Natalia Alibekova told RIA Novosti by telephone. “They took the roof off our building while we were still living there, when it was around minus 15 [degrees Celsius].”
“They didn’t offer us anything like the market price – they paid us the minimum,” she added.
Azerbaijani First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, head of Baku’s Eurovision organizing committee, told the Trend news agency last month that no one was removed from their home to make way for the construction of the Crystal Hall arena, which sits on the shores of the Caspian Sea.
She also accused critics of seeking revenge for Azerbaijan’s success at the 2011 Eurovision.
“These people perceive our victory at the Eurovision song contest as a personal tragedy,” she said.
But Gogia accused Azerbaijani officials of wordplay.
“The arena was built on empty land, but the people were evicted for the nearby necessary infrastructure,” he said.
Former Soviet republic Azerbaijan gained the right to host this May’s Eurovision after its entry triumphed at the 2011 event in Düsseldorf.
Largely seen in Western Europe as a kitsch night out, Eurovision enjoys much greater prestige in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The 2009 Eurovision, held in Moscow, was heralded by Russian state-run television as an indication that the country was “reclaiming its superpower status in politics and culture, including popular music.”
And oil- and gas-rich Azerbaijan, which ranked 143rd out of 183 in Transparency International's 2011 corruption index, is likewise looking to Eurovision to trumpet its achievements since gaining independence in 1991. A TV audience of about 125 million viewers from 42 countries is expected for the event.
But with the world media due to descend on Baku for the May 26 final, opposition groups have pledged to hold rallies to highlight what Amnesty International has called the country’s "unsavory” record on human rights.
Azerbaijan has guaranteed Eurovision organizers, the European Broadcasting Union, that foreign journalists will be free from any censorship as they cover this year’s event.
Neighboring Armenia announced last month it would not be attending the Baku Eurovision.
Armenia and Azerbaijan are still technically at war after a conflict over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s left at least 25,000 people dead. A ceasefire was agreed on in 1994, but a permanent peace deal has still not been signed.