Street protests and clashes. Cyber attacks. Angry words from Iran.
This probably wasn’t the kickoff that Azerbaijan had hoped for as it hosts Eurovision, a glitzy singing contest this week that aims to pit the best crooners and chanteuses on the continent against one another, from Irish twins to singing Russian grannies. The flashy competition has put the former Soviet nation in headlines and on the lips of people across the world -- but not always in a flattering light.
Human rights groups have excoriated Azerbaijan for rounding up peaceful protesters, threatening journalists and illegally ejecting people from their homes in the run-up to the event. Activists have sought to turn the Eurovision spotlight onto abuses and repression in the oil-rich country.
“When else can we make noise? Eurovision is it –- at no other time would anyone pay attention to us,” one woman who was kicked out of her home in downtown Baku told the Financial Times.
Dozens of protesters were reportedly detained Monday after demanding an end to corruption. Amnesty International slammed the European Broadcasting Union for its “deathly silence” on the crackdown Tuesday as the semifinals began in Baku, complaining that it had promised to protect free expression.
Iran, meanwhile, pulled back its ambassador, blasting Azerbaijan for “violating all codes of good neighborly relations and principles of Islamic solidarity for the sake of Israel,” the Iranian Fars News Agency reported. Iran, which has accused Azerbaijan of sheltering Israeli spies, was apparently alluding to clerics' claims that a gay pride parade was planned during the final days of the singing contest.
The battle has also gone digital, with the Eurovision websites suffering cyber attacks over the last month, the Azeri-Press Agency reported. In one attack last month, hackers reportedly put up slogans against the singing contest and posted a photo of the slain journalist Rafig Tagi. Another website that publishes information about Eurovision was hacked last week over the supposed pride parade.
The country has tried to turn the focus back to the singing stars. An Azerbaijani presidential official fired back Monday at both Iran and the human rights groups, the Agence France-Presse reported, saying there was absolutely not going to be a gay pride parade and calling claims from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch “groundless.” Iran, he said, was just jealous of its success.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: The audience awaits the start of the first semifinal of the Eurovision Song Contest 2012 in Baku, Azerbaijan, on Tuesday. Credit: Joerg Carstensen / European Pressphoto Agency