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LGBTQ+ – Global Voices: In Azerbaijan, violence against LGBTQ+ people continues unabated

Arrest of prominent activists renews concerns over alarming anti-LGBTQ+ narratives

Originally published on Global Voices

Image by Daniel James. Free to use under Unsplash License.

In February 2022, Azerbaijan’s LGBTQ+ community was deeply shaken, once the news of queer activist and journalist Avaz Hafizli’s brutal murder became public. His death sparked a public outcry on social media platforms, with many activists criticizing Azerbaijan’s history of inaction when addressing hate crimes, specifically those targeting marginalized groups in the country. Fast forward to present day, and the trend continues unabated. On May 23, police detained several transgender women in the capital Baku over what started as a verbal harassment of transgender women at first, but turned into a confrontation between the women and law enforcement when the latter physically attacked one of the transgender women. In response, a group of LGBTQ+ activists gathered outside the police station where the transgender women were taken. According to the activists’ personal accounts, police provoked the group, sparking a scuffle. As a result seven people were detained, among them two prominent activists — Javid Nabiyev and Ali Malikov. In an interview with Global Voices, Malikov said that Nabiyev and he went to the police station to express solidarity and to get more information about what was going on, because no media was reporting the incident. While both have been released since then, they were accused of hooliganism as well as drug possession and fined. The other activists detained were sentenced to administrative detention. Following their release, both activists shared personal accounts of mistreatment, violence, and public humiliation by law enforcement officers.

Overlooked and dismissed

According to ILGA Europe, an international non-governmental organization advocating for LGBTQ+ rights and freedoms, Azerbaijan occupies the last place among 49 countries on the organization’s Rainbow Index consecutively for three years in a row.

In recent years, the Azerbaijan government has intensified crackdowns against the LGBTQ+ community. In 2017, at least 83 people were detained by the police for being gay or transgender. The detainees reported being tortured and blackmailed. The same year, at least four Azerbaijani citizens who identified as LGBTQ+ committed suicide.

In 2018, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported the Azerbaijan government was using Israel’s Verint Systems surveillance equipment and software to identify citizens’ sexual orientation through Facebook.

More than a dozen LGBTQ+ people were arrested in 2019, most of whom were transgender sex workers who were solicited and then arrested according to Meydan TV and Minority Magazine reporting.

In March 2021, Minority Magazine reported a new movement calling itself “Pure Blood” which was mobilizing via Telegram to target  LGBTQ+ people in Azerbaijan.

Then, in the summer of 2021, during Pride month, Minority Magazine documented more attacks against LGBTQ+ people.

In general, for many LGBTQ+ individuals who face discrimination and violence, there is little recourse through the police or any official judicial channels. For instance, in November 2022, a trans woman and her partner were attacked on the street in the capital, Baku. Knowing the police’s poor track record with queer citizens, they decided not to file an official complaint, fearing reprisals and potential privacy violations.

The most brazen example of the state’s unwillingness to help the queer community was when popular blogger Sevinc Huseynova made open calls for violence against the LGBTQ+ community on social media platforms. She was never reprimanded for her actions despite ample evidence of her encouraging people to commit violent crimes against queer people. In one of her videos, Huseynova asked local law enforcement to look the other way on cases concerning hate crimes. “A sign is enough for us, just tell us, and we, the people, will slowly shove them away,” said the blogger. In another video, she called on Azerbaijani men to kill transwomen. At the time, the Interior Ministry said it was aware of the videos and was investigating. But no measures were taken.

However, Huseynova is not an isolated example. The anti-LGBTQ+ narrative in Azerbaijan is pervasive among politicians, celebrities, public figures, and even opposition activists. Most recently, a member of opposition political party Tofig Yagublu claimed in a chat room that queers were biologically disabled people. In general, the country’s civil society representatives often remain silent when it comes to defending the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. As queer activist Vahid Aliyev noted on Twitter, “It is deeply disheartening to witness the abhorrent silence of civil society in the face of recent events surrounding LGBTQI+ rights activists in Baku, Azerbaijan.”

There is also the issue of lacking legal recourse which only exacerbates the situation. Currently, existing legislation in Azerbaijan does not address hate crimes based on gender identity or sexual orientation. According to a report by the Danish Institute for Human Rights, Azerbaijan does not have national policies protecting LGBTQ+ rights. There are also no specific institutions fighting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity:

Article 109 of the Criminal Code sets forth penal sanctions for the persecution of groups or organisations on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, or sex or others prohibited by international legal norms. Persecution is understood as “crime against humanity” in terms of for example torture and deprivation of liberty against international norms. Hate crime in itself does not qualify as persecution under this provision. 37. There are no other provisions in the Criminal Code relevant to hate crimes against LGBT individuals.

This year, Azerbaijani lawmakers have also voiced support for adopting a homophobic law akin to the one adopted in Russia in December 2022 and the 2012 Russian anti-gay propaganda bill.

In the event Azerbaijan does not adopt such a restrictive law, in practice it already exists, noted LGBTQ+ activist Miray Daniz in an interview with Chaikhana Media. “The non-approval of the law is merely to preserve [Azerbaijan’s] image abroad,” said Daniz, adding, “We live as if this law exists. We are always under surveillance by the police and other government agencies, we are always under pressure. There is almost no state institution that we can feel safe with, that protects us and thinks about us.”

In the absence of such basic protections, the work and activities carried out by LGBTQ+ activists are limited in scope and impact, given the political and social environment. All the while victims of abuse and harassment are left to their own devices, fearing for their lives, and subject to humiliation. In an interview with local media, Nabiyev and Malikov said they were taken for blood tests in the absence of a court order, were subject to forced search of razors, as if all members of the community carry razors under their tongues, were shamed and subject to name-calling, and, in one instance, the activists spotted how police officers used paper tissues to touch the doors the activists touched earlier.

Written by Arzu Geybullayeva


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