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Song contest raises hope for change in Azerbaijan

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BAKU, Azerbaijan — As Azerbaijan prepares to host the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest next week, advocates say now is the time to increase pressure on the former Soviet republic for its human rights abuses.

"[Eurovision] is an opportunity to shine a light on some [...] darker spots of Azerbaijan," German Human Rights Commissioner Markus Loning told The Washington Times.

Since Azerbaijan won last year's contest in Germany and the right to host this year's, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders have led a campaign to publicize how President Ilham Aliyev's regime is intimidating, attacking and jailing Azeri journalists and opposition activists on spurious charges of drug possession, tax evasion and blackmail.

Mr. Loning said civil rights, free speech and judicial independence have declined in Azerbaijan over the past decade, despite the government's signing onto the European Charter of Human Rights in 2001.

"We see a country that is moving away from freedom and that is exactly contrary to what they have committed to [...]," he said.

Rights activists say the situation in Azerbaijan — which ranks 162 of 178 countries on Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index — has deteriorated even more in the run-up to the contest.

"Things on the ground are not getting better; in fact, they are getting worse," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch in Berlin. "Media freedoms, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly have actually deteriorated in the last few months."

On Monday, police in the capital of Baku forcefully broke up two peaceful but unauthorized demonstrations that called for the release of 70 political prisoners who Human Rights Watch says are languishing in Azeri jails.

Amnesty International said videos posted on YouTube showed protesters being shoved, punched and kicked by uniformed police officers and dragged away as they shouted "Freedom."

"The international media attention the contest will bring seems to be no deterrent for Baku's police, who continue to use brute force to put down peaceful protests," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia program director.

Eurovision organizers are feeling the heat as campaigners call on the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) to take a stronger stance on the regime's actions.

But the EBU, which was founded to promote media freedom among its members, says it must follow strict competition rules and exercise diplomacy to keep.

Eurovision running. The live "televote" final must stay free from politics and is off-limits for campaigners, said Michelle Roverelli, EBU head of communications.

"If a singer on stage shouts out 'Free Azerbaijan,' he would be disqualified," Ms. Roverelli said. "That also goes for the commentators, who have to refrain from all political messages during the live show, simply because this could impact the voting system."

Outside the contest, the EBU says it is encouraging the regime to engage in dialogue with campaigners.

On May 2, the EBU brought together Azeri authorities and nongovernmental groups to discuss human rights and media freedom during a one-day workshop in Geneva. Ms. Roverelli said the EBU, which represents 85 media outlets in 56 countries, is promoting media freedom among its members, including Azeri public broadcaster Ictimai, which will air the contest on May 26.

Activists say the EBU's approach does nothing to address intimidation and harassment by the regime, which often means Azeri media outlets operate under a policy of self-censorship.

Campaigners hope to bring enough international political pressure to force the regime's hand. The U.S. and Europe have remained silent on the regime's poor human rights record mainly due to Azerbaijan's oil and gas reserves and strategic military importance, human rights officials say.

"[But now], everybody has Azerbaijan on its internal map and internal agenda, and I see that [the EU] will look at Azerbaijan in a different way," Mr. Loning said. "They will keep on putting pressure on Azerbaijan's government to release the political prisoners and change the human rights situation."

Ms. Roverelli is more skeptical: "I don't think 'the Eurovision effect' can turn Azerbaijan into a democracy overnight. I don't think [the regime will] change just because of the contest."

Josie Le Blond reported from Berlin, and Ruby Russell in Berlin contributed to this report.

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