Azerbaijan on Saturday prepared a spectacular show for a thrilling Eurovision Song Contest final that pits pensioners against young stars, but the party was marred by the detention of dozens of activists.
Eurovision is the biggest event ever hosted by Azerbaijan, an energy-rich state on the Caspian Sea, which wants to present a glitzy front to the world despite concerns over its rights record under the rule of the Aliyev dynasty.
The final of the song contest, featuring entries from 26 countries, will air live from the Crystal Hall on the city’s Caspian Sea bay from midnight local time (1900 GMT) to an audience of some 100 million television viewers.
Going into the final, the favorite to win is Sweden’s entry, Loreen, a 28-year-old singer who performs an upbeat number called “Euphoria” with high-kicking dance moves and a fake snowstorm.
Also hotly fancied are Russia’s Buranovskiye Babushki, a choir of elderly women from a single village who perform a song set to a disco beat called “Party for Everybody”, with most of the lyrics in their native Udmurt language.
Equaling the eldest of the babushki in age at 76 is Britain’s entry, veteran crooner Englebert Humperdinck, with a ballad called “Love Will Set You Free.”
The excitement was building in the capital where electronic billboards were counting down the hours to the final, and the event’s logo swirled on buses and a fleet of new London-style black cabs.
On Friday night, the message “Eurovision final 2012” flashed across the facades of skyscrapers on a hill above the bay and the main promenade was crowded with strollers waving Eurovision flags.
But the festive atmosphere was clouded by the arrest late Friday of dozens of opposition activists who attempted to hold a peaceful demonstration calling for fair elections and freedom of assembly in the tightly-controlled state.
The Public Chamber opposition alliance said in a statement on Facebook that “more than 60 protestors were detained” and “about 10 protestors were injured”, as police, many in plainclothes, bundled them into vans and buses.
Rights activists have held several protests in the run-up to Eurovision to draw attention to the plight of political prisoners and to the lack of civil freedoms and democracy.
Azerbaijan is run by strongman President Ilham Aliyev, whose succeeded his late father Heidar Aliyev in 2003.
The hosting of the contest is very much the project of Aliyev, whose wife Mehriban Aliyeva heads the organizing committee and whose son-in-law, Emin Agalarov, a Moscow-based businessman who sings as a hobby, will sing in the interval of the final.
Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova of Radio Liberty reported this month that a construction company in the project to build the Crystal Hall venue in a city-commissioned project had links to the Aliyev family.
The event is also far beyond the reach of ordinary Azerbaijanis, with tickets for the final starting at 160 manat ($204).
Security was exceptionally tight, with journalists submitted to multiple document checks and hundreds of guards ringing the venue.
Police were also blocking access roads to restrict traffic passing the seaside Crystal Hall.
Rights activists have met Loreen of Sweden, but she declined to comment on her views on human rights when questioned after the second semi-final on Thursday.
The state broadcaster apparently deliberately translated the journalist’s question incorrectly, saying she asked Loreen how she felt on stage, local opposition media reported.