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Azerbaijan Urged To Free Political Prisoners Ahead Of Eurovision

Imprisoned Azerbaijani youth leader Ruslan Bashirli
Imprisoned Azerbaijani youth leader Ruslan Bashirli
A group of Azerbaijani human rights activists and journalists is urging President Ilham Aliyev to release all political prisoners ahead of next year's Eurovision Song Contest in Baku, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reports.

The call came in an open letter signed by more than 30 people, which was addressed to Aliyev on May 26.

Azerbaijan won the final of the pan-European contest in Germany earlier this month, meaning it will host next year's final.

"The final of Eurovision 2012 will be held in Baku and will attract the attention of the world to both the contest itself and to Azerbaijan as a whole. Therefore, we would like to draw your attention to the tense civil rights situation in the country, including violations of freedom of speech, assembly and association, and especially the issue of political prisoners, which is noted by local and international human rights organizations. This is the alarming situation of the background against which Eurovision 2012 will be held in Baku," the open letter reads.

The activists say that if no major steps are taken to reduce social tensions, then Azerbaijan will appear to be a country that is not free, despite hosting a free art event. "As you know, rock is the music of free people," the authors write.

Hikmat Hajizadeh from the Eurointegration committee, one of those who signed the letter, told RFE/RL that Azerbaijan is not an isolated island in the world.

"We have to be together with the world and Europe," she said. "We'll lose if we become a closed country. Our enemies will strengthen and we'll lose our lands."

Human rights activist Leyla Yunus said she is not very optimistic that the government will rectify all its past mistakes ahead of Eurovision 2012.

"But many believe our government is far-seeing, and one will see during the Eurovision that Azerbaijan is a developed country," she added.

The activists call on Aliyev to take steps to reduce this tension and to pardon by May 28 (the anniversary of Azerbaijan's independence in 1918) all political prisoners and jailed journalists and activists.

President Ilham Aliyev issued a pardon decree on May 26, paving the way for the release of 70 prisoners, including journalist Eynulla Fatullayev.

They include several other political prisoners, but not Baxtiyar Haciyev, recently sentenced for draft-dodging; youth activist Cabbar Savalan; and Ruslan Bashirli, a leading member of the youth organization Yeni Fikir (New Idea).

Bashirli was sentenced in July 2006 to seven years' imprisonment on charges, which he denies, of accepting money from Armenian intelligence to try to overthrow the Azerbaijani leadership in the run-up to the November 2005 parliamentary elections.

Read more in Azeri here