(See Below for Case Law, Evidence of Public Attitudes, NGOs that Assist or Advocate on LGBTI issues, and Country of Origin LGBTI Specialists)
As a member of the United Nations, Azerbaijan has ratified various international human rights instruments including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (with a Reservation), the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) and the Optional Protocol to CAT (with a Declaration), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Azerbaijan has also acceded to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.
Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe and has signed the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Article 14 ECHR prohibits discrimination on any ground. The ECHR also prohibits torture and arbitrary detention.
In January 2001, the law in Azerbaijan was changed, and consensual same-sex acts between men were no longer a criminal offence. This legislative change was a requirement for Council of Europe membership. Sexual acts between women have never been considered a crime, but they have also never been recognised in law.
The Constitution of Azerbaijan states that ‘everyone’ shall have a right to marry. The marriageable age is 18 for men and 17 for women, however, the Family Code of Azerbaijan defines marriage as ‘a voluntary union between man and woman for establishing a family’. Same-sex marriages or civil partnerships are not recognised.
No case law is currently listed here, but we welcome suggestions.
PUBLIC ATTITUDES AND/OR STATE’S CAPACITY TO PROTECT
Azerbaijan was ranked the worst of 49 European countries in which to be an LGBTI citizen by the ILGA-Europe Rainbow Index in May 2016 (‘the 2016 Index’), according to the Guardian. The 2016 Index cited the high number of homophobic and transphobic attacks and discriminatory comments made by political figures as contributory reasons for the country’s low ranking. The 2016 Index draws attention to Azerbaijan’s failure to protect its LGBTI community from hate crime and discrimination. The 2017 ILGA-Europe Rainbow Index for the January to December 2016 period (‘the 2017 Index’) again ranked Azerbaijan last, specifying that ‘[t]he landscape for creating change for LGBTI people did not change drastically in 2016… An examination of the legal and policy criteria shows that LGBTI people continue to be faced with a near-total absence of legal protection’.
For the 2013 Universal Periodic Review (‘UPR’) of Azerbaijan (the country’s last completed UPR at the time of writing), the UN Committee against Torture reiterated its earlier concern that the definition of torture in article 133 of the Azerbaijani Criminal Code omits the purposes of torture set forth in CAT and lacks provisions defining as offence torture inflicted with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person performing official functions (see ‘Known incidents of violence’, below). The Human Rights Committee also recorded its concerns that individuals had been harassed by police and prison officials because of their sexual orientation, and confessions had been obtained using torture and ill-treatment during an investigation.
In September 2015, the EU Parliament passed a resolution on Azerbaijan that condemned the country’s treatment of human rights defenders and specified it was ‘extremely concerned over the situation of LGBTI people’.
The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) published a report on Azerbaijan on 7 June 2016 (‘the ECRI 2016 Report’) which cited the absence of any legal provisions that protect LGBT people from discrimination, forcing many to hide their identities on a daily basis.
Known incidents of violence
- In October 2017, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that a violent campaign had been carried out by Police in Azerbaijan against LGBT persons, encompassing arrests and torture of men presumed to be gay or bisexual, and transgender women (‘the 2017 Raids’). HRW ascertained that since mid-September 2017, police in the capital of Azerbaijan, Baku, had detained numerous people on spurious charges, and forced some to pay bribes and provide information about other gay men using beatings and electric shocks. The Guardian similarly reported that in September 2017 at least 60 gay and trans people had been fined or imprisoned following a wave of systematic and widespread raids in Baku. One person contacted by the Guardian claimed to have been beaten in police custody and only released after paying a fine. Two men interviewed by HRW reported being detained and tortured in the Azerbaijani Organized Crime Unit, known as ‘Bandotdel’. Lawyers interviewed by HRW reported that police had shaved the heads of transgender women detainees, and at least 34 other detainees described severe ill-treatment and being forced to sign false statements by police during court proceedings. For individual accounts of what happened during the 2017 Raids, please see the HRW report here. See also ‘State and political attitudes’, below.
- The 2017 Index reported the Azerbaijani Ministry of Health’s September 2016 remarks on an operation carried out on a 12-year-old intersex child. The operation took place at a private clinic in Baku and the Ministry stated in media reports that it had ‘…received the relevant documents from the Ministry of Health and Forensic Medicine, which allow us to do this operation. This operation is carried out lawfully. Even a little bit too late. This operation should be carried out before the child is aware of their gender’.
- The 2017 Index records that on 27 August 2016, raids in Baku by police from the Sabail district resulted in the detention of several gay men, trans people and sex workers (‘the 2016 Raids’). A victim of the raids recounted the incident to a local organisation and reported the incident to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. This victim claimed that he was detained along with approximately 30 other gay men, trans people and sex workers and they were kept in police custody from 1am until 10am, whereas the Azerbaijani Criminal Procedure Code states that such detentions should not exceed three hours. The police informed those detained that tourists from Middle Eastern countries had complained about their behaviour – referring to the behaviour of sex workers as a ‘disgrace’ – and one tourist alleged that they had been robbed by a sex worker.
- The 2017 Index also reports that during 2016, the same local organisation to which the victim of the 2016 Raids recounted his experience received reports of two cases where LGBT people were blackmailed by police officers saying they would disclose personal information at those individuals’ homes or places of work.
- In May 2016, the Guardian reported the case of a gay Azerbaijani activist, Javid Nabiyev. After he proposed to his boyfriend in 2014, pictures of their engagement ceremony posted to Facebook found their way into mainstream news, the couple’s personal details were published online, and Nabiyev and his partner became targets of a national hate campaign. Nabiyev’s neighbours became threatening and life became unbearable forcing the couple to flee to Turkey. The pressure of persecution tore the couple apart and they returned to Azerbaijan separately, where Nabiyev continued with his activism. The authorities then targeted him for his work for the organisation he founded, Nefes LGBT Azerbaijan Alliance, and he was beaten by police innumerable times. The media accused Nabiyev of being a Western spy and he fled to Germany, worried that he could be detained more permanently if he stayed in Azerbaijan. Nabiyev also told the Guardian that his ex-partner’s mother had thrown gasoline on him and tried, unsuccessfully, to set him on fire in April 2016.
State and political attitudes
In May 2016, the programme director of ILGA-Europe was quoted by the Guardian as perceiving the tension between East and West as being central in the struggle for LGBTI rights. He explained, ‘[w]e’ve seen a lot of backlash in the region. One common denominator is that Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia all want to distance themselves from the West and the LGBTI struggle has been at the centre of that… LGBTI rights are seen as a modern Western value that the West is trying to impose and this mindset really comes at the cost of the LGBTI community’. This accords with a 2007 ILGA report, which stated that some politicians and commentators in Azerbaijan opposed to European values sought political advantage by equating homosexuality with being European, and portraying Europe as a place where ‘men have sex with and marry men’.
In respect of the 2017 Raids, although homosexuality is legal in Azerbaijan, those imprisoned were charged with resisting police orders, a charge used in Azerbaijan for arbitrary arrests. The Azerbaijani authorities deny that the recent crackdown targeted all LGBT people. The spokesman for the country’s Interior Ministry, Ehsan Zahidov, has provided differing and conflicting reasons for the 2017 Raids, according to HRW. He is quoted by the local APA news agency and the Guardian as specifying that, ‘[t]hese 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’. HRW also refers to an interview of Zahidov’s with EurasiaNet, in which he specified that police were responding to complaints from residents in Baku that gay men were visible on the streets, ‘[p]eople 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’. HRW also reports that Zahidov attempted to justify the 2017 Raids on public health grounds, maintaining that the arrests were intended to ‘prevent dangerous contagious diseases from spreading’. He claimed that six of the detainees had tested positive for HIV, and of those, five also had syphilis, stating 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’. However, the director of the AIDS Center of Azerbaijan, Natig Zulfugarov, said no tests were conducted and to do so without a court order would be illegal. The lawyers of the detainee stated that police had not obtained such orders. Forced medical testing of individuals contravenes international human rights standards.
A joint statement was issued by the Azerbaijan Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor General’s Office on 2 October 2017 (‘the Statement’), reported by APA and HRW, which confirmed that the 2017 Raids resulted in the detention of 83 people. The Statement specified that some were arrested on charges of ‘petty hooliganism’ for allegedly initiating arguments with people who declined solicitations for sex, and confirmed that 56 individuals were issued administrative detention sentences, 18 were fined and nine were issued warnings. According to the Statement, the 2017 Raids were carried out 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’. HRW reports that lawyers had confirmed the identities of 45 gay and bisexual men, and transgender women, who were detained and sentenced by courts to up to 30 days’ administrative detention for ‘disobeying police orders’. Ten others who had been fined and released immediately were also identified. The lawyers told HRW that the overwhelming number of arrests prevented them from documenting many cases. However, in those cases they were able to address, there were numerous procedural violations including police pressuring detainees to sign statements refusing the services of a lawyer, and the detainees being prohibited from accessing lawyers before and during their hearings, only being able to access lawyers after they decided to appeal their administrative detention sentences.
Although the decriminalisation of homosexuality can be viewed as an achievement, homophobia is widespread in the Azerbaijani public. At the time of the 2016 Index’s release, the Guardian quoted a gay Azerbaijani activist who stated that each year, ‘hundreds of LGBTI people are exposed to physical, psychological and economic violence by their family members and the people around them. They are killed, forced to live a double life, commit suicide or leave the country’. The ECRI 2016 Report noted that LGBT people in Azerbaijan are subject to hate speech and violence, and some attacks are committed by the individuals’ own family members.
In 2014, Isa Shakhmarli, a twenty-year-old leading LGBTI activist, hanged himself using the rainbow flag, as reported by Pink News. The Guardian reported that he left behind a video in which he said, ‘I tried to explain that love is love as much as I could but my family and friends never understood’. Pink News reported that he left behind a note saying he was not able to go on living in ‘this country and this world’. A friend and former colleague of the deceased, Vugar Adigozalov, said his family had found it difficult to accept him, ‘[t]he main reason for his suicide was that he had bad relations with his family’.
As of 3 October 2017, according to HRW, there are no officially registered or operational LGBT groups in Azerbaijan. In its 2017 World Report (‘the World Report’), HRW records that following the 2014 and 2015 adoption of highly restrictive and punitive regulations on NGOs, it has become nearly impossible for independent groups to carry out and fund their work. From February 2016, the Azerbaijani Justice Ministry has been able to conduct intrusive inspections of NGOs on an extensive range of grounds. The World Report records that in April 2016, the Azerbaijani Prosecutor’s Office suspended a criminal investigation that was launched in 2014 against dozens of foreign donors and their grantees. However, as of the date of the publishing of the World Report, despite the unfrozen bank accounts following the suspension, several groups could not access funding because the Azerbaijani authorities refuse to register their grant agreements: Azerbaijani regulations require NGOs to provide banks with proof of grant registration in order to access grant funds. Furthermore, the World Reports cites at least a dozen human rights and government accountability NGOs whose bank accounts remain blocked; these groups have either suspended their work or operate in exile.
In May 2016, the programme director of ILGA-Europe told the Guardian that he couldn’t speak openly about the work ILGA-Europe is doing in Azerbaijan because ‘any kind of visibility that we give to the work we do, puts people at risk. This work is made extremely difficult by the government…’.
However, the ECRI 2016 Report noted that, since its last reporting cycle, some LGBT civil society groups had been set-up. The ECRI 2016 Report also commended police protection of LGBT people during events such as the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest in Baku.
NON-GOVERNMENTAL ORGANIZATIONS (NGOs)
We do not currently list any LGBTI NGOs in Azerbaijan, but we welcome suggestions.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN SPECIALISTS
We currently have no Country of Origin Specialists on LGBTI issues in Azerbaijan, but would welcome suggestions.
Please note that where this report refers to LGBT and not LGBTI, it reflects the terminology of the sources used to compile the information presented in the report.