No let-up in crackdown on dissidents in Baku
IN the final hours before a worldwide audience tuned in to the Eurovision Song Contest last night, the authorities in Azerbaijan sentenced three human-rights demonstrators to six days in jail.
With a global TV audience of 125 million focused on the oil-rich country, the Azerbaijani government had hoped to boost its image and play down criticism of its poor human-rights record.
Instead, it jailed some of the 70 democracy campaigners who were arrested in protests in the capital Baku on Friday and fined others. The demonstration, which saw those who dared to speak to the international media arrested, was the third to be broken up by police last week.
Since Azerbaijan's surprise win in Germany last year, which brought it the prize of hosting the 2012 contest, the regime has spent hundreds of millions of pounds sprucing up the city centre for the international audience.
The 23,000-seat Crystal Hall was built especially for the event at an estimated cost of €220m and is staffed by a team who have learnt rudimentary English.
But concerns about the lack of freedoms of speech and assembly have marred the ex-soviet country's preparations. Azerbaijan has 16 political prisoners, according to Amnesty International, and Reporters Without Borders ranks it near the bottom of its index on press freedom.
The murder of a prominent journalist, Rafig Tagi, remains unsolved and a number of journalists are in jail.
Activists have also drawn attention to the dictatorial style of president Ilham Aliyev, who took over from his father in 2003.
US diplomats described the country as having "the feudalism found in Europe during the Middle Ages" in a diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks.
Azerbaijani officials deny the allegations and accuse foreign governments of spreading false information.
There was also criticism that Mr Aliyev had turned the contest into a family affair. His wife Mehriban chaired the organising committee and his son-in-law Emin Agalarov was booked to sing during the interval.
Democracy activists fear that the Azerbaijani government could crack down even harder once the show is over.