Human rights groups have voiced severe concern and sought ways to help after activists said dozens of gay people had been jailed following raids by the authorities in Azerbaijan in recent weeks.
Javid Nabiyev, president of Nefes LGBT Azerbaijan Alliance, said in a Facebook video that police had held detainees for up to 30 days and forced them to give the names and addresses of gay and transgender acquaintances.
"Everybody have fear that they might be arrested anytime on the street," Nabiyev said in English, referring to members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in the tightly controlled South Caucasus country.
"People are confused," he said in the video, which was published on Facebook on September 22.
Nabiyev, who is based in Germany, said some right-wing political leaders had called for a crackdown on LGBT people, contending that they were "sources of immorality and dangerous diseases" and "have been cursed by God."
Local activists said at least 50 gay and transsexual people had been detained in police raids of private homes, subway stations, and LGBT-friendly clubs, pubs, and bars in Baku over the past two weeks.
'Beatings' And 'Verbal Abuse'
Civil Rights Defenders, a human rights group based in Sweden, said the number of arrests could run into the hundreds. It said many of those detained were released only after giving up the addresses of gay and transsexual acquaintances.
Lawyers for some of those arrested said their clients had been subjected to beatings, verbal abuse, and forced medical examinations, rights groups said. The reports could not be independently verified.
Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry denied that police targeted or discriminated against "sexual minorities," and said the arrests were part of a crackdown on prostitution.
"In our country, representatives of sex minorities have never been persecuted. However, this does not mean that they are exempt from liability for illegal actions," the ministry said in a statement.
"The police had to take measures in connection with the fact that recently people of nontraditional sexual orientation engaged in prostitution."
Interior Ministry spokesman Ehsan Zahidov was quoted by the Associated Press on September 29 as saying the arrests were sparked by citizens' complaints of "disrespect to others."
AP quoted Samed Rahimli, a lawyer it said was helping coordinate legal representation for detainees, as saying that at least 46 people had been sentenced to between 10 to 30 days in jail for resisting police.
"Of the detained sexual minorities, 16 [had] AIDS or syphilis," said Rahimli, who asserted that detainees were providing "sexual services" to multiple partners and "spreading the infection."
But the Nefes LGBT Azerbaijan Alliance posted a statement on September 29 from one of those detained, saying, "I am not a sex worker."
"They were beating me. The police told me I'm doing prostitution work and I must give them information about clients," the man, identified only as Hasan, said on the group's Facebook page.
Khadija Ismayilova, an RFE/RL contributor known for investigative reporting on high-level corruption in Azerbaijan, said that she knew of 16 recent cases in which people believed to be from the LGBT community were detained and sentenced to short jail terms.
"And not a single one of the cases that I studied is related to sex-industry workers. So this is not a raid against sex-industry workers," Ismayilova told Current Time TV, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America, on September 29.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) will investigate the reports, Stefan Schennach, a co-rapporteur for the monitoring of Azerbaijan by PACE, said in a tweet on September 28.
Azerbaijan legalized homosexual activity in 2000, but the former Soviet country was still ranked the worst in Europe for gay people in a 2016 survey by the international advocacy group ILGA.
In 2015, the European Parliament voted to condemn the "intimidation and repression" of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people in Azerbaijan after a string of homophobic incidents.
ILGA's executive director in Europe, Evelyne Paradis, accused Azerbaijani police of "indiscriminate targeting of people perceived to be members of the LGBTI community."
"[We] are worried about the fate of the victims of these raids, and are calling for the immediate release of anyone still in detention," she said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said its staff was trying to contact victims to get more details and assist them. "Obviously, we are extremely concerned about those serious allegations of detentions, abuse, and forced medical testing, and they need to be thoroughly investigated," said HRW's South Caucasus director, Giorgi Gogia.
"Understandably the victims are terrified and vulnerable to further abuses," he added.
ILGA was working "to make links with activists and lawyers on the ground, and try to facilitate as many conversations with our partners in other human rights organizations," ILGA spokeswoman Emma Cassidy said.
She added the group had launched a fundraising appeal for Azerbaijan, with a dedicated webpage providing information on the situation.
British gay-rights group Stonewall also contended that the authorities had singled out gay and transsexual people, and said that some transsexual women had their heads forcibly shaven.
Azerbaijani officials told the Caucasian Knot news agency that the raids were part of a campaign to fight prostitution and "protect national moral values" in response to citizens' complaints.
The arrests followed a crackdown on LGBT people in the nearby Russian republic of Chechnya, where media reports and activists say more than 100 gay men are believed to have been detained and tortured, and in some cases killed, earlier this year.