Activists in Azerbaijan Fear Statewide Crackdown as LGBTQ Imprisonment Increases

Activists claim the country’s laws are exploited to target queer people with extreme regularity, particularly trans women.

Activists are calling for a full investigation following a wave of arrests targeting LGBTQ people in Azerbaijan.

At least 14 people were rounded up on April 1 as authorities targeted LGBTQ individuals—primarily transgender sex workers—in the capital of Baku. In one instance, a trans woman was attacked by a group of men while meeting a client at a hotel room. When a friend stepped in to stop the violence, police arrested her.

According to activist Samad Ismaylov, the man chased officers to a local police station to ensure his friend’s safety. Authorities refused to give him “any information about what’s going on, what she did wrong, or why they’re arresting her,” Ismaylov claims.

“He started screaming and said, ‘Okay, arrest me, too,’” he tells NewNowNext. “They took him to the same cell as his friend.”

After being forced to undergo an exam to test his HIV status, the man was taken to a courtroom where he was refused a lawyer and forced to sign paperwork he wasn’t allowed to read. He would be slapped with a $40 fine. But after the brief ordeal, Ismaylov claims the man was released the following day. However, the trans woman was sentenced to 10 days in jail and is one of several who currently remain behind bars.


Ariel shoot for Baku city capital of Azerbaijan country, and show some building and flame tower and Caspian Sea.

Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

Of the 14 people detained, only five have been identified. Arrestees were reportedly apprehended for violating laws on “minor hooliganism” and disobeying police. Ismaylov believes it’s a pretense to target already vulnerable populations.

“Prostitution is illegal in Azerbaijan, but you cannot arrest people for that,” he says. “It's a fine, but there’s no jail. That’s why they’re jailing people under another article.”

While LGBTQ individuals have been received sentences of 20 days at the most, the statutes carry a maximum 30-day sentence. Given the Azerbaijan police’s history of maintaining what Amnesty International’s Daniel Balson calls a “carousel of detentions,” their release could be delayed until the end of the month or they could even face immediate rearrest.

Balson, the advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia, says the problem is that jails in Azerbaijan are “functionally a revolving door.”

“In April, a political activist was re-arrested just two weeks after his release and he's been sentenced to 30 days in prison,” he tells NewNowNext. “Police haven't informed his family of the exact charges against him.”

Activists say immediate accountability is critical to ensure the situation in Azerbaijan doesn’t devolve into another crackdown on the LGBTQ community. In November 2017, more than 80 individuals were arrested, beaten, humiliated, and subjected to electroshock treatment during a series of brutal raids.

Javid Nabiyev, an Azerbaijan-born activist now based in Germany, says he is “disturbed at what appears to be targeted harassment” of a group for whom “sex work is a means of survival.”

“Azerbaijani authorities should bring these detentions to an immediate halt, conduct full investigations into the actions of the police, and implement procedures to ensure that they do not act in a discriminatory or arbitrary manner,” Nabiyev, who serves as president of Nefes LGBT Azerbaijan Alliance, tells NewNowNext.

Mikhail Svetlov/Getty

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN - SEPTEMBER 27: (RUSSIA OUT) Azeri President Ilham Aliyev speaks during a Russian-Azeri meeting at the regional forum on September 27, 2018 in Baku, Azerbaijan. Vladimir Putin is having a short visit to Azerbaijan on the way to the CIS Summit in Tajikistan. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev.

Marc Behrendt, director of Europe and Eurasia programs at Freedom House, adds in a statement that “the perpetrators need to be held accountable for their actions.”

Although the State Department is often slow to weigh in on human rights abuses against LGBTQ people in foreign nations, it has claimed it is “deeply concerned” about the allegations. A spokesperson said in a statement that “such acts would be inconsistent with Azerbaijan’s international human rights obligations.”

Coincidentally, the calls coincided with a Wednesday meeting of the Cooperation Council between the European Union and Azerbaijan. While the council applauded Azerbaijan’s decision to pardon over 400 political prisoners—including “representatives of political parties, NGOs, bloggers, and journalists”—it’s unclear whether the LGBTQ detentions were raised as part of that discussion.

“The E.U. expects Azerbaijan to review all remaining cases of imprisonment resulting from the exercise of fundamental rights and to release all those concerned,” the council claimed in a press release.

EurasiaNet, however, claims the European Court of Human Rights began investigating the 2017 raids in February.

According to Ismaylov, it’s imperative that international authorities put pressure on Azerbaijan’s government to institute sweeping human rights reforms. While same-sex activity has been legal since 2000, he claims the country’s laws are exploited to target LGBTQ people with extreme regularity, particularly trans women.

“These situations become serious when there are a lot of people being arrested at the same time,” he claims. “These arrests are going on on a daily basis—one person or two people—and it’s never news.”


An Azeri national flag flies in the wind in Baku on March 22, 2019. (Photo by Mladen ANTONOV / AFP) (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Azeri national flag flies in Baku.

In 2016, the advocacy group ILGA ranked Azerbaijan as the worst European country for LGBTQ people. Ismaylov says queer and transgender people are forced to essentially live a “double life,” hiding who they are from friends, coworkers, and family members in fear of violence or even death.

Police allegedly exploit the lack of support for LGBTQ people to extort members of the community. Recent reports suggest authorities have begun hunting down trans people through the internet.

Those norms cannot change without enormous pressure, Ismaylov claims.

“There's a lot of corruption inside the system, and they will do these raids just to get some money—because they will ask those people to pay them so they won't arrest them,” he says. “Unless the law in the country changes, this will just keep happening.”