Mounting fears over reports of the detention of scores of gay and transgender people in Azerbaijan are prompting some LGBT people to flee the central Asian country, activists tell CBC News.
Over the past week or more, as many as 100 people have been arrested or detained by authorities in the capital city of Baku.
“In the beginning it was just sex workers who got arrested, and then day by day the arrests growed (sic) and others got arrested,” said Javid Nabiyev, president of the Nefes LGBT Azerbaijan Alliance.
Nabiyev now lives in Dusseldorf, Germany, where he says he was granted asylum after his work as an activist made it impossible for him to stay in Azerbaijan.
He told CBC News gay people in the oil-rich, mainly Muslim country have been subjected to occasional harassment in the past, but a systematic effort to detain people is unprecedented.
Homosexuality is not illegal in Azerbaijan, but it is not widely accepted.
“Detainees were subjected to beatings, verbal abuse and forced medical examinations,” Naviyev wrote in a report posted on his group’s Facebook page Thursday.
“Many were released only after giving up addresses of fellow members of the LGTB community, who were then in turn arrested and subjected to the same treatment,” said the report.
Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs was quoted by a local news agency saying that the raids had “nothing to do with anyone’s sexual orientation.” Instead, the ministry accused the detainees of being engaged in prostitution.
The detentions in Azerbaijan have prompted comparisons to the situation in nearby Chechnya earlier this year.
Human rights groups said dozens of gay men were rounded up and held in prisons for days, humiliated, starved and tortured.
The international organization Human Rights Watch said men were outted to their families, and relatives were encouraged to carry out “honour killings.”
Canada has since granted asylum to dozens of gay men from that country.
Nothing of that severity has been reported in Azerbaijan, but Nabiyev says people there are clearly concerned it could happen.
“Some people have already left the country,” he said. “Most of them are going to Georgia or Turkey, because we don’t need a visa.”
Tanya Lokshina, with Human Rights Watch in Moscow, said the “anti-gay purge” in Chechnya may have emboldened those with homophobic views in other nearby predominantly Muslim countries where homosexuality is not widely accepted.
“People are effectively on the lookout for gays,” she told CBC News.
“They’re whispering behind his back, ‘What about his hairstyle, what about his clothes, is there a possibility?’ and so forth. It’s not something that was likely to happen before the purge when the issue was taboo,” she said.
“But it’s extremely dangerous for gay people there now.”