Azerbaijan on Monday hit out at critics ranging from Iran to Western rights groups as it tried to combat pressure over alleged abuses ahead of hosting the prestigious Eurovision song contest.
Senior presidential administration official Ali Hasanov said that human rights campaigners were spreading lies about the ex-Soviet state and Western media were conducting an “anti-Azerbaijani” campaign.
He accused Islamic neighbor Iran of spreading fake rumors that a gay pride march would be held in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku during Eurovision week.
“They are making statements about something that does not exist. We are holding Eurovision, not a gay parade,” Hasanov told a news conference.
“Actually there is no word in the Azerbaijani language for a gay parade, unlike in their language,” he added.
He accused Iran of being “jealous” of Azerbaijan’s economic success and worried about its secular government.
Unfounded rumors circulated on Iranian websites this month suggesting that a gay pride march would take place in mainly Muslim but officially secular Azerbaijan during Eurovision.
In a wide-ranging attack on his country’s detractors, Hasanov went on to accuse some European media and international campaign groups of actively seeking to tarnish Azerbaijan’s image ahead of Eurovision.
“Groundless statements by two organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, cause particular regret,” he said.
“I want to say that if these organizations continue (acting) in the same way, they will risk losing the Azerbaijani people’s trust, because the Azerbaijani people see that the statements of these two organizations have nothing in common with the actual situation in the country,” he added.
Western media have given significant coverage in recent days to claims by campaigners that the government of strongman President Ilham Aliyev systematically violates human rights, jailing opponents, persecuting journalists and suppressing free speech.
Hasanov specifically singled out media in Germany, where alleged abuses have been widely reported, for what he called their “negative, anti-Azerbaijani information policy”.
The Azerbaijani authorities want to use the pop contest watched by an estimated 125 million people worldwide to enhance the image of the energy-rich state.
In a separate development Monday, opposition leaders accused police of detaining around 40 people at unlicensed protests staged by the Public Chamber alliance in Baku on the eve of Eurovision’s first semi-final show.
“There were small protests in various parts of the city, 100 people attended and 40 were detained,” said Isa Gambar, leader of the Musavat party which is part of the Public Chamber, claiming that some detainees had also been beaten.
Hasanov’s sideswipe at neighbour Iran came amid increasingly tense relations with the Islamic Republic after a series of arrests of alleged attack plotters with links to Tehran in recent months.
Iran is also unhappy about Azerbaijan’s friendly links with Israel and its reported purchase of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of weapons from the Jewish state.
There will be two semi-finals on May 22 and 24, with ten from each going on to the final on May 26 alongside Azerbaijan, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Britain.