Fifty to 100 LGBTQ people were arrested in Azerbaijan after raids on bars and private homes this month, according to activists and local media reports.
Azerbaijani officials said the raids were part of a campaign to crackdown on prostitution, but activists charge that police specifically targeted gay men and transgender women in Baku, the Eurasian nation’s capital.
Javid Nabiyev, president of Nefes LGBT Azerbaijan Alliance, said in a Facebook video that police detained arrestees for up to 30 days and forced them to give names and addresses of gay and transgender acquaintances.
“People are confused,” Nabiyev said in the video, which was published on Sept. 22. “Everybody have [sic] fear that they might be arrested anytime on the street, and even existence of this fear is big problem.”
According to the Civil Rights Defenders, a human rights group based in Sweden, detainees were subjected to beatings and forced medical examinations, and transgender women had their heads forcibly shaved.
The group, which said it had received information from local activists and lawyers, added that detainees were kept under “administrative detention,” a legal practice in Azerbaijan that does not require a public hearing prior to sentencing.
Azerbaijani officials told the Caucasian Knot newspaper, which covers the Caucasus region, that the raids are part of a campaign to fight prostitution and “protect national moral values” in response to citizen complaints.
"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 country’s Ministry of Internal Affairs 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.”
The ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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Ayaz Efendiyev, a leader of the right-wing Justice Party, spoke out in support of the raids and against the West, according to local news site AzPolitika. In Nabiyev’s Facebook video, he translated Efendiyev’s comments into English.
“Defending these creatures, who are sources of immorality, dangerous diseases and who have been cursed by God, Western circles trying to destruct of our national traditions under the name of ‘human rights,’” Efendiyev told AzPolitika, as translated by Nabiyev.
Azerbaijan has an unsteady record on LGBTQ issues, with a May 2016 report by ILGA-Europe ranking the country as the worst in Europe to be gay.
In 2015, the European Parliament voted to condemn the “intimidation and repression” of LGBTQ people in Azerbaijan after a string of homophobic incidents, including Nabiyev receiving death threats after becoming engaged to another man.
While the country legalized homosexual activity in 2000, ILGA-Europe’s 2016 report found “LGBTI people continue to be faced with a near total absence of legal protection” in Azerbaijan.
If confirmed, the raids in Azerbaijan would echo reports of persecutions this year in Chechnya, a semi-autonomous region of Russia where police have allegedly arrested and tortured dozens of gay men.