Azerbaijan’s authorities have released all of the gay and transgender people detained in raids across Baku last month, government officials and the detainees' lawyers have told EurasiaNet.org.
More than 83 people were detained between Sept. 15 and 30, according to an official statement, and all have been released.
In the statement, released October 2, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs said that 83 people were detained between September 15 and 30 for “offering intimate services” and to check them for sexually transmitted diseases.
“According to medical findings, 32 [of those detained] had different venereal diseases; six have AIDS, six have HIV, 16 have syphilis, two have acute urethritis, and two have Hepatitis” it said. That was a more detailed explication of claims authorities have repeatedly made about the level of diseases found among those detained.
Lawyers for the detainees and LGBT activists have said, however, that the police targeted all gay and transgender people, not just sex workers. And they have disputed the authorities' contentions about the medical findings. The country's AIDS center has said they have not been involved in the alleged examinations.
The statement did not address the release of the detainees, but that was confirmed by Ministry of Interior officials to EurasiaNet.org.
While some of the detainees had been fined and released, most had been ordered detained for 20 days in a series of perfunctory trials on September 17, meaning they were released slightly ahead of schedule. It's not clear what prompted the change of heart by the government.
A lawyer for the detainees, Samad Rahimli, told EurasiaNet.org that the Interior Ministry statement was inaccurate and discriminatory. "In any case, the release of the LGBT individuals is a positive move," he said.
The raids had become an international scandal, with human rights groups and leading international media covering them. The Interior Ministry statement took issue with many of the findings of those reports.
“There are claims in the media about alleged assaults against sexual minorities and violations of their rights. These claims are completely unfounded and do not reflect reality” the ministry said.
Local activists say those detained were dragged out of their workplaces, physically assaulted, subject to forced medical exams, fined, and forced to inform on other LGBT contacts.
Homosexuality is legal in Azerbaijan, but a survey released last year ranked Azerbaijan as the worst of 49 European countries in which to be gay.
Officials say claims such as these are part of a smear campaign targeted at Baku. “LGBT people enjoy all their rights and freedoms as other citizens of Azerbaijan” said Hikmet Hajiyev, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Azerbaijan is proud of its multiculturalism and tolerance.”
The crackdown evoked memories of another roundup of LGBT people in the southern Russian region of Chechnya, many of whom were detained and tortured.
Azerbaijan has long been a target of human rights criticism, including for its treatment of gay and transgender people.
In 2014, a 20-year-old Azerbaijani rights activist, Isa Shakhmarli, hanged himself with a rainbow flag. “This world is not able to hold my colors,” he wrote in a suicide note.
The following year, 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.
But criticism of the current crackdown has been relatively muted. “Not a single EU state reacted to Azerbaijan’s mass hunt for LGBT people,” Maxim Eristavi, a journalist who covers LGBT issues in the region, wrote on twitter. “EU only came up with pathetic ‘we are aware.’”
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) would investigate the reports, Stefan Schennach, a co-rapporteur for the monitoring of Azerbaijan by PACE, said in a tweet on September 28.
With reporting by Durna Safarova.