European pop beats will hit Azerbaijan soon, but, before that, looks like the police are doing the hitting. Just like almost anything from Azerbaijan these days, the recent beatings and arrests of protesting youth rappers are being weighed against the Eurovision Song Contest, an annual pop-music romp to be hosted by Baku in May .
Singer Jamal Ali and brass player Natiq Kalmilov, both 24, were reportedly brutally beaten and then arrested after they hurled verbal abuse against Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev at a sanctioned March 17 protest rally in Baku. The event’s organizer, 25-year-old Etibar Salmanli, was also detained. Their lawyer and relatives are worried that the three continue to suffer abuse in police custody.
In a statement, human-rights watchdog Amnesty International*, a frequent Azerbaijan critic, condemned the reported police violence against the anti-government rappers. “It is deeply ironic that only two months before Baku takes the world stage for Eurovision, Azerbaijani authorities are using force to break up and silence musicians performing at peaceful protests on the city’s streets,” said Europe and Central Asia Director John Dulhuisen.
Amnesty urged the government “to give a greater voice to all its citizens in the run-up to the Eurovision Song Contest.”
There appears to be ample cause. Last week, Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who works for both RFE/RL and EurasiaNet.org, became a target of an ugly smear campaign while investigating a Eurovision story, and thinks that the government could have a hand in it. Earlier on, two youth activists were beaten by police. The two, just as the rappers, were charged with hooliganism.
A reader unversed in the region may not see a clear connection between the push to force more democracy on Azerbaijan's dissent-wary government and a famously garish pop show, where the veteran British crooner Englebert Humperdink and a bevy of babushkas from Russia will feature among many other curious talents. But, in Baku, as anywhere, image counts for a lot.
*Amnesty International has received funding from the Open Society Georgia Foundation, part of the Soros Foundations network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the Open Society Institute, a separate part of that network.