An edited version of this article was also published in Gay Star News. You can read it here.
Nefes, the only LGBT-rights organisation operating in Azerbaijan, has today announced that it will no longer continue operation.
The announcement was made in a press release to a number of supporters released by email.
In the statement Nefes claimed that increased arrests and persecution of human rights groups in the country had led the group to make the difficult decision. The group also mentioned a significant risk of the personal safety of its members.
2014 was a difficult year for Azerbaijan’s LGBT community. The year began with the shocking death of a leading activist and founder of Nefes, who committed suicide after ongoing persecution. Although seen as a significant loss for the community the death helped kick-start a new-found passion among member of the group, which helped inspire much action in the country.
Despite ongoing persecution from all sides the group continued to achieve many things. Most notably, the country’s first ever forum on gender issues was organised by Nefes, which helped draw international attention to the problem of inequality faced by many Azerbaijanis.
As the fledgling group began to grow in momentum they also began to face further obstacles. After announcing plans to launch a campaign centred around Azerbaijan’s hosting of the upcoming European Games in Baku the group also became the target of harassment by government officials. According to reports at the time, activists of the group had been the subject of raids and travel restriction which they claim were designed to limit their ability to campaign on social issues.
As Azerbaijan’s authorities continued its assault on human rights groups Nefes’ actions began to slow, impeded by the difficult environment seen across the country.
But attacks on their work came from all directions.
In September, 2014 one of Nefes’ founding members became the target of a homophobic media attack after news of his engagement with his male partner was released to the press. Several media outlets shared the news, which led to online harassment and threats of violence directed towards the activist and his partner. As a result of the threat of violence the couple attempted to seek asylum outside of Azerbaijan. Unconfirmed reports at the time however claim that their attempts to flee the country were blocked by Azerbaijani authorities, who confiscated their passports.
Earlier that year the group’s website was also attacked and taken over by suspected religious extremists when a message stating ‘we will destroy you all’ alongside the image of a Jihadist flag appeared on the front page.
As representatives of the country’s LGBT community members of the group are often subject to violent threats and persecution. Despite claiming to be a secular state, much of Azerbaijan’s population remain conservative and religious. General attitudes towards LGBTI individuals are not positive and individuals from Nefes have been subject to hate speech, physical attacks and even torture.
As well as being a sad blow to the country’s fight for equality the decision to close is also an indicator of the worrying situation of Azerbaijan’s human rights defenders.
Throughout 2014 human rights activists, lawyers and journalists across the country were subject to political imprisonment in what has been described as a ‘crackdown’. Several individuals who have been critical of the regime’s human rights record were persecuted into silence or arrested.
Actions by the country’s government have been condemned by several international groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. However, despite a widespread cry for action much of Europe has been unwilling to take action against the oil-rich nation – who remain a key economic partner for much of Western Europe.