Attacked by state and society, what life is like in Europe’s worst country for LGBT rights
Located at the boundary of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, Azerbaijan decriminalised homosexuality in 2000. Yet no legal or social protections exist for LGBT people in Europe’s worst country for gay rights, who are regularly targeted and attacked by authorities and far-right groups, and isolated by society.
Ali Melikov, 18, who uses they/them pronouns, said they lost friends and family after they were outed as a young teenager – and began receiving almost constant anti-LGBT abuse at school.
“I do not think the LGBTQ+ situation in Azerbaijan is good,” they told i.
“The government is doing its best to go after free societies, taking more radical steps every day. The number of prisoners is increasing every day because of the political and social situation – journalists trying to report this are going to jail.”
Melikov, who was detained by police officers at a protest in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, spoke at the first LGBT press conference in the country in almost a decade in 2022 and is at the frontlines of LGBT advocacy in the country – but says this activism has taken its toll.
“It’s very hard to say this, but I don’t even have friends in this country anymore. Many of them had to leave the country… The discrimination they saw from the people, and the pressure from the state, was a reason for all of them to leave,” they said.
Violent attacks, unwarranted detentions and discrimination against minorities are common in the former Soviet republic.
LGBT groups and individuals regularly face cyber attacks and hacking efforts in an attempt to silence their voices.
A far-right youth movement called “TamizQan” (Pure Blood) have used the secure messaging app Telegram to target members of the LGBTQ community in Azerbaijan.
Posts by the Pure Blood group from 2021 talk about finding and beating people with a “non-traditional sexual orientation” in Baku, according to LGBT magazine Minority Azerbaijan.
According to the 2023 Rainbow Europe Index published by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), Azerbaijan ranks as the worst place for LGBT people to live in Europe. Not only has the nation ranked last for several years, its score continued to slide this year to just 2 per cent.
The ILGA says there is “a near total absence of legal protection” in the country.
With fewer than 20 public LGBT activists, it’s almost impossible to organise for LGBT rights, according to Melikov. “I can’t even see a glimmer of hope in this regard in Azerbaijan,” they said.
The worsening situation for LGBT people in Azerbaijan became international news as a new wave of anti-gay crackdowns began in late 2017. According to local media reports, more than 100 LGBT people, predominantly in Baku, were arrested in what Azerbaijani officials say was a campaign against prostitution. International human rights organisers, activists and lawyers have confirmed that these arrests targeted LGBT people.
For Aykhan Osmanli, project coordinator at the Gender Resource Centre (GRC), a group founded in response to the lack of safe spaces for LGBT people in Azerbaijan, the government plays a major role in provoking anti-LGBT discrimination.
Osmanli, who also uses they/them pronouns, said the people detained during the 2017 crackdown were brutally beaten up and their hair was shaved off as an act of humiliation. “Since then, pogroms [violent riots aimed at expelling minority groups] are being actively used by the police to threaten and exclude LGBTQI+ and queer identities,” they added.
Cases of gay men and transgender women being murdered, beaten, interrogated and forced to undergo medical examinations have been reported in recent months and years.
Two particularly brutal examples were the beheading of Avaz Hafizli, an Azerbaijani journalist and LGBT rights activist, last February by his cousin and the death of trans woman Nuray Nuriyev, who was stabbed and burned alive in 2021.
“After the murder of trans woman Nuray, upon being targeted by blogger Sevinj Huseynova on their social media account, a public prosecution campaign was organised by GRC and a case was filed to multiple judicial departments, for which the answer was that they cannot do anything as LGBTQI+ are not considered as a ‘social group’,” said Osmanli.
Melikov says that advocating for LGBT rights in a place like Azerbaijan is extremely challenging as those in power continue to repress freedom of speech and limit the ability of at-risk groups to organise for their human rights.
“Unfortunately, we do not have access to international platforms, so we have a hard time making our voices heard,” said Melikov. “The government is trying to camouflage all of this. By bringing events such as Formula 1 and EuroGames here, it tries to give the impression that everything is fine.”