Azerbaijan court overlooks a hate crime against LGBTQ+ activist

“Justice to Avaz” reads the sign. Image by Meydan TV, screen shot from video report.

Five months after journalist and queer rights activist Avaz Hafizli was murdered on February 22,  the perpetrator, Amrulla Gulaliyev, was finally sentenced to nine years and six months behind bars on July 29. However, Hafizli's friends and members of the LGBTQ+ community are not satisfied with the ruling, as they feel the court overlooked the especially gruesome and violent nature of the murder in sentencing.

The sentence omitted any mention of a hate crime and overlooked the perpetrator's targeted cruelty, including abusing the body after committing the crime, beheading Hafizli, and committing genital mutilation, wrote the feminist initiative Femkulis in a public Facebook post.

In the wake of the journalist's death in February, activists criticized Azerbaijan officials’ longstanding inaction around hate crimes, specifically those targeting marginalized groups. During the murder trial, Gulaliyev confirmed that he had killed Hafizli for his sexual orientation.

Following the court's decision, Hafizli's friends and members of the LGBTQ+ community shared their concerns on Twitter. They say the investigation and the trial were biased:

On July 18 during the hearing, the state prosecutor asked for ten years and six months sentence based on Article 120.1 of the Criminal Code. This means, the investigation is over. The investigation of a hate crime that was based on [Hafizli's] sexual orientation and the court proceedings were also biased.

They also continue to hold the relevant government institutions accountable for the murder of the journalist.

Noting that Afaz Hafizli requested assistance from the state security services numerous times. However, none of his complaints were taken into account.

In a long Twitter thread, LGBTQ+ activist Vahid Aliyev explained the discrepancies in the case and the due process of the investigation. “In his testimony [Amrulla Gulaliyev] said he planted the murder three months in advance. However, during the hearing, he said, him and Hafizli had an argument [and that he committed the murder after the two argued]. Hafizli's mother, said her son was murdered whilst asleep,” wrote Rafaeloglu. The additional evidence — the premeditation of the murder, beheading, and genital mutilation — was not taken into account during the final hearing on July 29. As such, Amrulla Gulaliyev received the lowest possible sentence.

State-sponsored anti-LGBTQ+ narratives

In an interview with Global Voices, Ali Malikov, an activist and a member of LGBTQ+ movement who has been following the case closely,  said that he and other activists were not allowed into the courtroom during the first two hearings, even though the trial was open to the public. It was only after the activists publicly complained that they were allowed to enter the courtroom. But even then, they faced new obstacles, explained Malikov. “Normally, the hearing would start later than scheduled time, after our complaint, however, they would start right on time, and shut the doors to the outsiders. So if you were a few minutes late, which is what happened to me during the third hearing, you were not allowed in,” recalled Malikov.

Malikov said, Hafizli's death was not an isolated case but one of the most recent examples of hate crimes committed in Azerbaijan against LGBTQ+ people. He said this was a result of a pervasive anti-LGBTQ narrative and listed several well-known cases of murdered trans women in recent years, none of which were thoroughly investigated.

In addition to instances of violence, there is also the persecution of LGBTQ+ community. In 2017, at least 83 people were detained by the police for being gay or transgender. The detainees reported being tortured and blackmailed. The same year, at least four Azerbaijani citizens who identified as LGBTQ+ committed suicide.

In 2018, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported the Azerbaijan government was using Israel’s Verint Systems surveillance equipment and software to identify citizens’ sexual orientation through Facebook.

More than a dozen LGBTQ+ people were arrested in 2019, most of whom were transgender sex workers who were solicited and then arrested, according to Meydan TV and Minority Magazine reporting.

In March 2021, Minority Magazine reported a new movement calling itself “Pure Blood,” which was mobilizing via Telegram to target  LGBTQ+ people in Azerbaijan.

Then in the summer of 2021, during PRIDE month, Minority Magazine documented more attacks against LGBTQ+ people.

For many who face discrimination and violence, there is little recourse through the police or any official judicial channels. For instance, in November of last year, a trans woman and her partner were attacked on the street in the capital, Baku. Knowing the police's poor track record with queer citizens, they decided not to file an official complaint, fearing reprisals and potential privacy violations.

The most brazen example of the state's unwillingness to help the queer community was when blogger Sevinc Huseynova made open calls to violence against the LGBTQ+ community on social media platforms. She was never reprimanded for her actions despite ample evidence of her encouraging people to commit violent crimes. In one of her videos, Huseynova asked local law enforcement to look the other way on cases concerning hate crimes. “A sign is enough for us, just tell us, and we, the people, will slowly shove them away,” said the blogger. In another video, she called on Azerbaijani men to destroy trans women. At the time, the Interior Ministry said the ministry was aware of the videos and was investigating. But no measures were taken.

However, Huseynova is not an isolated example. The anti-LGBTQ+ narrative in Azerbaijan is pervasive among politicians, celebrities, and public figures, and according to Malikov, similar narratives are also common among members of the opposition in Azerbaijan too.

They talk about police violence, or law, but they fail to understand that until LGBTQ+ are free, no one is going to be free either. And what is more concerning is that Hafizli came from the opposition. Whenever they had problems, he was always there, covering the issue. But none of them showed up during Hafizli's trial, not even his colleagues he used to work with.

What needs to change

Among the long list of recommendations, Malikov said hate crimes must end, and the rights of the LGBTQ+ community must be respected. “We have a right to mobilize. We should not be seeking permission for that, so it is important that all the barriers are lifted,” said Malikov.

There is also a need to make laws more inclusive.

Currently, existing legislation in Azerbaijan do not address hate crimes based on gender identity or sexual orientation. According to the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), Azerbaijan has not reported information and statistics on hate crimes to ODIHR since 2011. According to a report by the Danish Institute for Human Rights, Azerbaijan does not have national policies addressing LGBTQ+ rights. There are also no specific institutions fighting discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity:

Article 109 of the Criminal Code sets forth penal sanctions for the persecution of groups or organisations on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, or sex or others prohibited by international legal norms. Persecution is understood as “crime against humanity” in terms of for example torture and deprivation of liberty against international norms. Hate crime in itself does not qualify as persecution under this provision. 37. There are no other provisions in the Criminal Code relevant to hate crimes against LGBT individuals.

In the absence of such basic norms, the work and activities carried out by LGBTQ+ activists are limited in scope and impact, given the political and social environment.

While Malikov believes that the community has become more vocal amid ongoing harassment and hate campaigns against the queer community in Azerbaijan, it is still challenging. “Until now, we only held small, closed gatherings, now we can react to crimes, and raise our voices,” explained Malikov, adding, “We engage in political conversations as a movement, but I am hopeful that these difficult times will pass. We as a LGBTQ+ need to be heard. And there is much work to be done.”

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