A gay man who was arrested this month in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan told BuzzFeed News he was beaten and tortured with electric shocks while in detention for nine days.
The man, who asked to be identified only by his nickname, Xeyal, to protect his security, is one of dozens of LGBT people arrested in an unprecedented sweep in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. Samed Rahimli, a lawyer who is helping coordinate defense for many of those arrested, says at least 60 people were arrested; 50 of these were held in detention for as long as 20 days.
But the true number of those caught in the sweep could be higher, since many of those arrested did not have access to an attorney. Xeyal is one of these — he told BuzzFeed News that he has been too frightened since his arrest on Sept. 19 to contact a lawyer. He also fled his apartment and canceled his cell phone worrying he’d be arrested again.
“We were captives in our home country,” Xeyal said, describing his detention in “the cellar,” which is what he called the cell where he was kept for nine days in the Ministry of Internal Affairs' Main Organized Crime Department. His face and arms still showed signs of bruising, and he said he had been beaten with a baton on the head, knees, and arms. He also said electric shocks were applied to his head and body more than 30 times. During this torture, he was asked to reveal the names of former sexual partners and forced to sign documents without being allowed to read them. Among those interrogators were most interested in learning about: the members of the Azeri elite who had, in their words, “used their services.”
Others who have been caught in the sweeps describe similar torture, said an attorney representing some of the defendants. (The attorney asked not to be named, fearing clients could be in danger if the attorney was known to be describing torture to international press.)
The reasons for the raids are so far a mystery to attorneys and human rights activists. The detentions come four months after similar raids were carried out in Chechnya, the Russian region where dozens of LGBT people were tortured by authorities, but no one involved in the cases who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they thought these raids were connected.
Azerbaijan has ratified the charter that makes it part of Europe’s top human rights body, the Council of Europe, but it has one of the worst human rights records of members. Reported mistreatment of detainees is not rare in Azerbaijan, particularly once in the hands of the Main Organized Crime Department — and the treatment of political prisoners is getting worse. Giyas Ibragimov, who was sentenced to years in prison for graffiting a statue, claimed that he was beaten at the Baku Penal Colony No. 2. Independent Azeri journalist Afgan Mukhtarli claims that he was abducted and beaten in Tbilisi, the capital of neighboring Georgia, and then taken to the Azeri–Georgian border, where he was detained.
Azeri officials are also accused of bribing foreign lawmakers to stop the Council of Europe from adopting a resolution to condemn their detention of political prisoners.
Daniel Holtgen, a spokesperson for the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, said the body is concerned about the reports coming from Azerbaijan. "Discrimination of minorities, sexual or other, is against the European Convention of Human Rights. LGBTI persons have no special rights under the Convention; they have the same rights as anyone else," Holtgen said in an email to BuzzFeed News. "Azerbaijan should ensure these rights are respected and the reported mistreatments are thoroughly investigated."
The US State Department did not initially reply to a request for comment after the detentions were first reported in the Guardian on Wednesday. Nearly a week later, a spokesperson responded to multiple messages from BuzzFeed News: "The United States is disturbed by reports that large numbers of LGBTI persons were detained in a series of targeted raids beginning September 15. We are also disturbed by reports that some of those detained were mistreated."
"LGBTI rights are human rights, and we urge Azerbaijan to uphold and respect its international human rights obligations and commitments," the spokesperson continued. "The United States will continue to engage the Azerbaijani government on issues of universal human rights and democracy."
The Ministry of Internal Affairs has offered shifting explanations for the raids to local media. Initially they said the raids, which the ministry said began Sept. 15, targeted sex workers, though lawyers say that was not the case of most of those arrested. The ministry then said it was a public health measure to identify people with HIV, but the Ministry of Health contradicted this account, saying police had not brought anyone in for HIV testing.
“Although authorities claim the raids related to public health, I think that it has been launched for discriminative purpose on LGBT community,” said Rahimli, the defense attorney.
Attorneys told BuzzFeed News many of those detained have been held in overcrowded cells, and many are being held in solitary confinement, denied the right to speak to relatives or attorneys.
Gulnara Mehtiyeva of a human rights group called the Minority Azerbaijan Organization said people were arrested at work, at clubs, and even from their homes. Since the sweep, she said, messages like “we will find and arrest you” are being sent to LGBT people over Facebook.
They are also being subjected to other forms of degrading treatment, said Agil Layic, a human rights activist and lawyer supporting the legal defense.
“They were being forced to be examined and their hair shaved in police station which can easily seen in court,” Layic said. “Some of them are still illegally being held in police station under unbearable conditions.”
Last week, lawyers filed appeals on behalf of several of those detained. But Xeyal said he will stay in hiding, too afraid to challenge the police.
“Why do they do this to us? I don’t know what I have done. What is my sin? We even cannot question,” says Xeyal, “I beg, if they don’t like us, please, let us leave the country.”
Lester Feder contributed to the reporting of this story.