In the run-up to the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan on May 26, the country's human rights record has been in the spotlight. There have been a series of reports in the German and international media about alleged abuses by the regime of President Ilham Aliyev ever since the country gained the right to host the tournament by winning the 2011 competition.
Now Baku is returning fire. In a statement issued earlier this week, the Azerbaijani Embassy in Berlin attacked an alleged media "campaign" against Azerbaijan led by "certain circles in Germany."
"For some time, starting right after Azerbaijan's victory in the (2011) Eurovision Song Contest, a systematic campaign against Azerbaijan has been carried out," the statement reads. The embassy said that it was "unfortunate" that the German government's human rights commissioner Markus Löning and German parliamentarian Christoph Strässer, who is the Council of Europe's rapporteur on political prisoners, as well as other members of the German parliament, "have actively participated and also currently participate in this campaign."
Löning has repeatedly criticized Azerbaijan's track record on human rights, and has said that freedoms in the country have been sharply curtailed over the last 10 years, contrary to promises made by President Aliyev. Strässer was recently denied a visa for Azerbaijan where he wanted to meet with political prisoners. Baku accused him of exceeding his mandate. Azerbaijan is one of 47 members of the Council of Europe, an organization that promotes democracy and human rights across the continent.
The comments by the Azerbaijani Embassy were a reaction to an earlier statement made by the German Embassy in Baku. The embassy there had rejected claims published in the Yeni Azerbaijan newspaper, the official mouthpiece of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, that the German government had tried to influence reporting on Azerbaijan in the German media.
The Azerbaijani Embassy in Berlin insisted that Azerbaijan had a free press "like in Germany" and that the Azerbaijani government had no influence on the media.
Warning Against Inflated Expectations
There has been increasing criticism of human rights abuses in Azerbaijan in recent months, with repeated reports of harassment against journalists and suppression of pro-democracy groups, including the arrest of opposition demonstrators. According to the non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch, six journalists and 14 political prisoners are currently in prison in Azerbaijan. A recent German Foreign Ministry report on Azerbaijan, which SPIEGEL has seen, criticizes "state repression" in the country.
The human rights organization Amnesty International is also campaigning for the release of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. As part of these efforts ahead of Eurovision, it is releasing its own song "Toast to Freedom" on Thursday to coincide with World Press Freedom Day, featuring prominent musicians including Marianne Faithfull, Kris Kristofferson, Carly Simon, Angelique Kidjo and Rosanne Cash, among others.
But one of the judges from Germany's national contest to select its Eurovision entry has warned against inflated expectations that the contest could change things in Azerbaijan. Eurovision "can't do more than raise awareness," Thomas D, a prominent German rapper, told the Wednesday edition of the regional newspaper Die Rheinpfalz. "In order to improve the situation in Azerbaijan, it is necessary to have continuous political efforts." It is important to make sure that "everyone doesn't just forget (about the country) when the final curtain falls," he added.
dgs - with wire reports
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