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Baku Hosts Eurovision Final Amid Protests Over Rights Record

Plainclothes Azerbaijani police officers on May 23 detain the opposition activists who tried to hold a rally near the public television station that is showing the Eurovision broadcasts in Baku.
Plainclothes Azerbaijani police officers on May 23 detain the opposition activists who tried to hold a rally near the public television station that is showing the Eurovision broadcasts in Baku.
Azerbaijan hosts the 2012 Eurovision song contest final on May 26 despite protests over the country's poor rights record.

A total of 26 finalists will take the stage in the capital Baku for the final.

The annual Eurovision song contest is usually watched by a TV audience of more than 100 million people worldwide.

On the eve of this year's event, police on May 25 detained dozens of anti-government protesters in Baku.

Azerbaijan's authoritarian government has sought to use the Eurovision song contest to present the oil-rich country as a modern, prosperous state, and has spent millions of dollars on improvements in the capital.

Opposition activists have seized on the increased international media presence to draw attention to alleged human rights abuses.

"We expected that the Eurovision [Song Contest] would attract attention to Azerbaijan and this is what happened," said Ali Kerimli, the leader of Azerbaijan's opposition People's Popular Front party. "In the last months, very influential European mass media outlets have paid attention to Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan's problems. And we are pleased with this.

"But sadly, the Azeri authorities did nothing to improve the situation in the country and use this chance to show the world that Azerbaijan has started reforming. This did not happen, unfortunately."

Kerimli was summoned by police for questioning on May 26 in what he described as the authorities' "next anti-democratic move”.

Interior Ministr Sadiq Gozelov said some of those detained over protests on May 25 had told police Kerimli had instigated their actions.

Gozelov said Kerimli was politicizing the issue to draw foreign journalists' attention to himself.

'Serious Human Rights Violations'

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, regularly rate the Azerbaijani government's record as poor, citing restrictions on free speech and assembly, people being imprisoned for their opposition to the government, and incidents of police torture.

Earlier this week, Amnesty International's Deputy Director For Europe and Central Asia John Dalhuisen claimed that "serious human rights violations" have continued throughout the run-up to the Eurovision event.

"[There has been a] stern crackdown on freedom of expression, dissent, NGOs, critical journalists, in fact anyone who criticizes the [Azerbaijani President Ilham) Aliyev regime too strongly," he said. "And we've seen this continue right up until the Eurovision Song Contest."

The government has rejected allegations of rights abuses as "groundless" and it has accused rights groups of seeking to tarnish Azerbaijan's image.

Azerbaijan's neighbor Armenia, which is locked in a conflict with Azerbaijan over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh territory, a mainly ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, is boycotting the contest.

Performers from Russia, Moldova, Serbia, Macedonia, Ukraine, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania are among musical acts which will take the stage in the final on May 26.

Azerbaijan secured the right to host the contest when an Azerbaijani duo, Edgar and Nigar, won last year's Eurovision in Germany.

With reporting by AFP and AP
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