Azerbaijan: Anti-Gay Crackdown

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.

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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 Organised 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 decriminalised 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 charges to 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 offence 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 offences 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 defence, 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 offence.

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 Centre 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 behaviour 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 centre, 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, Taleh encountered a group of police officers near his house. “They warned me that if I go to the city center or show up in public places, I will be immediately arrested,” he said. “I asked the reasons. They said there was an order from the Interior Ministry, and they have to abide by this order.”

Authorities appear to have gathered significant amounts of intelligence regarding presumed gay and bisexual men, their sexual partners, and possible sex work clients – both through past raids and surveillance, and the intensified campaign, carried out in September 2017. Detainees Human Rights Watch interviewed and others interviewed by the media reported that their interrogators took particular interest in gathering intelligence about wealthy sex work clients.

Elgiz said he was held from September 20 to 24 by the Organised Crime Unit: “Police identified one of my random partners through my phone that they confiscated. The police had read our communications in Whatsapp, and had seen photos of him. My gay partner was from a well-off family and rather rich. He was gay but hiding his sexual orientation from his family. I was shocked when police suddenly interrogated me about him. When I refused to acknowledge my relationship with him, police beat me on my face and I fell down. Police showed me my phone chats with him. I had no way to not admit that I know him. I later heard that he had paid police bribes so they would not tell his family about his sexual orientation.”

“Sardar,” whom authorities detained at the Organized Crime Unit for nine days starting on September 18, 2017, told Human Rights Watch: “[The officers] opened my phone and started to respond to my family’s questions in Whatsapp about my whereabouts. My family did not know that it was the policemen writing back to them. Under the guise of my name, policemen were using foul language in their written chats with my family and others who were looking for me. From my phone, they reached some of my partners and some very respected [wealthy] gay persons, and they began to blackmail them [on the premise that] they had an affair with me.”

Detention

Lawyers told Human Rights Watch that detainees were held at various police stations throughout Baku and at the Interior Ministry’s Organised Crime Unit, and those whom courts had sentenced to detention were jailed at the Interior Ministry’s Administrative Detention Centre.

When Elgiz and his partner were taken to the Organised Crime Unit, he said, he recognised eight other gay men who were also held there. The men told him they had been detained on September 15 and 16, and held at a police station before they were transferred to the Organised Crime Unit.

Ramin, the 21-year-old man who does sex work, told Human Rights Watch that he escaped plain-clothes officers’ attempt to arrest him and a friend while they were dressed as women soliciting sex work clients in Baku, on the evening of September 17. The next day, he went to a nearby police station in search of his friend, whom police had apprehended. He said: “Together with my friend there were 20-30 transgender and gay people at the station. One non-homosexual also had been brought to the station. Police pressed him to confess being a gay.”

Torture and Extortion

Authorities held Elgiz and his partner at the Organised Crime Unit for four days, during which he was repeatedly interrogated, including with torture. “I was insistently asked if I am a sex worker…I denied it, as I never do such work,” Elgiz said. “Other questions included if I have a boss who arranges sex business and if I know who collects money from this business. They asked if I pay bribes to any local police officers in the city.”

Elgiz said the officers were not satisfied with his replies, so they tortured him: “I did not know anything to respond to such questions. Three policemen forced me to take my clothes off and took me to another room, where I was forced to sit and get shocked by electricity. There were some 10 policemen in that room. During a period of seven or eight minutes, they gave me electric shocks several times.”

Police held Elgiz incommunicado for four days, never charged him, or allowed him to retain a lawyer. Before releasing him, Organized Crime Unit officers ordered Elgiz to work as an informant: “I was ordered to cooperate with police as an informer and regularly update police on gays, their gathering areas, and identify rich gays.”

Sardar said that while he was detained, from September 18 to 27, officers beat him and used electric shock on him: “I was repeatedly beaten with truncheons on my legs, knees, and hands. I was electrocuted several times and each time they were insulting with bad words. My legs were almost burned after electroshocks. They not only electrocuted my head, but also hit me on my head with truncheons. It was very painful and there were many swollen and burn parts on my head. Still these spots from torture remain on my body.”

“After the electroshock, I did not remember which names of other gay men I shared with them,” he said. “I had no other way but to obey what police were ordering me to do. The pains were awful. I could also hear screams of other gay guys that were in that department. They were also tortured.”

Ramin, described the men, including his friend, whom he saw detained in the police station: “When I arrived there, it was around 11 a.m., and none were given even water. They were so brutally beaten, their faces and bodies were bruised violet. My friend was beaten by baton, his phone in the pocket was broken in pieces.”

Government Response

Azerbaijani authorities have not denied that gay men and transgender women in Baku have been rounded up in official raids beginning in mid-September. However, they have offered differing and conflicting reasons for the crackdown.

On September 27, Zahidov, the Internal Affairs Ministry spokesman, said in an interview with EurasiaNet that police were responding to complaints from residents in Baku that gay men were visible on the streets: “People complain that such people walk among us, walk in our streets, and sit in our cafés. These are people who do not fit our nation, our state, our mentality, please take action against them.”

He was also quoted by the local APA news agency as saying that: “These raids are not against all sexual minorities. The arrested are people who demonstratively show a lack of respect for those around them, annoy citizens with their behaviour, and also those whom police or health authorities believe to be carriers of infectious diseases.”

Zahidov also employed a public health scare tactic, claiming that six of the detainees had tested positive for HIV, and of those, five also had syphilis. He maintained that, “[t]his once again proves that both our citizens’ concerns and the actions we take about it are justified. It is important for the health of our people. Those who have diseases are being isolated from society.”

The AIDS Center at the Azerbaijan Ministry of Health told reporters that they had not conducted HIV tests on any of the detainees, and the two former detainees Human Rights Watch interviewed said they were not subjected to any health tests. The AIDS Center director, Natig Zulfugarov, said that authorities needed a court order to conduct HIV tests. According to detainees’ lawyers, however, the authorities had not obtained any for these cases so far.

The October 2 joint statement by the Interior Ministry and prosecutor’s office repeated the claim that the round-ups were conducted for public order public health reasons, saying they aimed to “to bring to justice those have violated public order and to prevent dangerous contagious diseases from spreading.” The statement also said that at the request of their lawyers, 32 detainees were “transferred to skin-venereal [testing centres]” and that “32 people who were not diagnosed with any venereal disease have been exempted from arrest.” The lawyers Human Rights Watch spoke to said that their clients were sent to such dispensaries before they had access to their clients.