The Azerbaijani authorities used the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest as a propaganda opportunity espousing the positive aspects of the country – its wealth, advancements, and stability. They promised to guarantee freedom of speech for contestants, fans, and foreign journalists who attended the song contest. The same guarantees were not extended to their own population.
That did not deter Azerbaijani human rights defenders from using the opportunity to inform the international media about the human rights situation in the country. Rasul Jafarov, lawyer, human rights defender and founder of the Human Rights Club, coordinated the Sing for Democracy campaign. The Human Rights Club was a member of the Human Rights House in Baku.
When campaigns are organised by Network members, their colleagues lend their voices, taking the call to action across international borders. There is strength in numbers. Network members supported the Sing for Democracy campaign, in Baku and in their home countries, protesting alongside the Azerbaijani defenders. Lasting for 10 months Sing for Democracy culminated in a series of protests held when the international press was gathered in Baku. The campaign also called for Eurovision contestants to speak out during performances.
Sanja Sarnavka, founder of the Human Rights House Zagreb and now member of the Networks international advisory board, states that Sing for Democracy and other joint campaigns on Azerbaijan really shows the strength of the Network. “We learn how difficult or rewarding human rights struggles may be, depending on the country, we support those who suffer and are punished for their valuable work, we raise voices jointly, and thus become stronger and more influential. All actions that were organized in relation to the situation in Azerbaijan may serve as the best proof of the importance of joint work of many. Only such an approach can have significant impact.”
Today, we see the images of peaceful protestors with Sing for Democracy emblazoned on their t-shirts intimidated by plain-clothes officers and the police. We see protesters surrounded by 3-4 police, dragged towards waiting vehicles as they are arrested; police cover their mouths to prevent them from shouting for political and media freedom or demanding ‘Where is my vote?’
Following the contest, Rasul met with Loreen, the Eurovision winner, who publically commented on the human rights situation. And other contestants added their voices to the conversation.
Covered by many international news agencies, the campaign succeeded at highlighting the human rights conditions in Azerbaijan. But at what cost.
Rasul is now serving a 6.5 year prison sentence. He, along with other Azerbaijani human rights defenders, was arrested on charges widely considered fabricated. And, his trial is considered a farce and a miscarriage of justice.
Today, Rasul is the focus of a Human Rights House Network campaign calling for his freedom and the freedom of other Azerbaijani political prisoners. Voices of human rights defenders working for more than 100 organisations unite to condemn his sentencing and demand his freedom. Posters hang with his image and those of his fellow inmates in 16 Human Rights Houses in 13 countries reminding everyone of the difficulties human rights defenders face.
And this week, Network members will march in solidarity through the streets of Oslo, calling for freedom and justice.
Twenty years after the establishment of the Human Rights House Network, human rights defenders are still rolling up their sleeves to get the job done. But they are not alone. The Network, with 16 Human Rights Houses and more than 100 organisations, unites local voices to focus attention on human rights developments and violations in their country. And, the combined strength of more than 100 organisations carries the voices across borders and into the international arena.
Joining forces in 1994 in the fight for human rights was as important then as it is today. The focus on the fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression continue to be at the core of the Network´s focus. As is the shared belief in the right to play a role in shaping civil society, and that it is possible – always possible – to affect change. These beliefs strengthen the Network as it protects, empowers and supports human rights defenders.