Europe watchdog questions Azerbaijan over fears of LGBT crackdown

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks has accused Azerbaijan of targeting the country's LGBT community

A European rights watchdog on Monday expressed concern over a wave of arrests in Azerbaijan last month of people who made "offers of sexual services" that human rights groups say targets the Muslim country's gay community.

In a letter to Interior Minister Ramil Usubov, the Council of Europe rights commissioner spoke of alleged "discrimination" against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Earlier this month, the interior ministry and prosecutor general announced that at least 83 people were arrested in raids from September 15 to 30, after they made "offers of sexual services to locals and tourists".

Nils Muiznieks wrote in the letter: "According to information at my disposal, the lawyers acting on behalf of the detainees have maintained that only a small number of those arrested were involved in sex work."

"Arrests based wholly or in part on sexual orientation or gender identity constitute discrimination".

Amnesty International had criticised the arrests, saying: "Clearly, LGBT community representatives were exclusively targeted in this raid and this was a blatant intimidation attempt by the authorities".

Usubov had denied targeting LGBT people then, and on Monday, he issued another denial in his reply to the Council of Europe.

""We received numerous complaints ... about a gross number of administrative violations of public order and persons involved in idleness, minor thefts or begging, as well as complaints about offering sexual services for money to locals and foreign tourists by sexual minority representatives," Usubov said.

"The only purpose of detention ... was to detect and prevent any facts which cause discontent of population as well as to protect public health".

Of the 83 people arrested, 56 were placed in administrative detention for 5 to 30 days, and 18 received fines, Usubov said.

He also addressed reports of discrimination, saying that LGBT people have sought "to insulate themselves from liability for any wrongful acts committed in our country by bringing to the forefront their sexual orientation".

Muiznieks also asked authorities to shed light on reports that detainees were subjected to medical tests to ascertain whether they had any sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.

"While protecting public health is a legitimate aim, it cannot be pursued through forcibly checking the health status of persons after arresting and detaining them," he said.

Oil-rich Azerbaijan has repeatedly been accused by rights groups of increasingly repressive policies under President Ilham Aliyev's authoritarian regime.