AZERBAIJAN-RIGHTS:Azerbaijan evictions mar Eurovision contest: rights group
By Margarita Antidze
TBILISI (Reuters) - Azerbaijan is demolishing homes and evicting residents in Baku, a leading human rights group said on Wednesday, in an attempt to turn its capital into a gleaming backdrop for the Eurovision Song Contest in May.
Flush with cash from oil and gas sales, Azeri authorities have swept away whole regions of Baku to make way for parks, roads, luxury apartments and a shopping centre ahead of the song contest.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented the evictions of dozens of families in the neighbourhood where a giant glass-encased 'Crystal Hall' is being build to host Eurovision.
"The Azerbaijani government is not just demolishing homes, it's destroying peoples' lives," said Jane Buchanan, senior Europe and Central Asia researcher at the rights group, adding the demolitions cast a shadow over the song contest.
"It should immediately stop illegal expropriations, evictions, and demolitions and compensate the people who have been evicted for both the loss of their homes and emotional suffering."
The mayor's office and the state property committee could not be reached for immediate comment. The Azeri authorities have said they offer residents compensation or resettlement.
Opponents say the demolition work is creating misery and changing the atmosphere of Baku, whose narrow lanes, merchants houses and ancient minarets are now dwarfed by modern glass office buildings and high-rise apartments.
HRW cited cases of apartment buildings being torn down while court challenges were still pending and said some residents were detained at night by the police.
"I woke up because the building was shaking and I could hear something like thunder," HRW quoted Arzu Adigezalova, 41, as saying. The maths teacher and a single mother of two young children has been evicted from her flat in central Baku.
"I took the kids and went outside. the official in charge and asked him to give us time to take our belongings out. He looked at me and said, 'OK,' but then in the next moment said to the bulldozer driver, 'Break it down'."
HRW documented cases of homeowners receiving no compensation offers or offers were far below the market value of the properties being demolished.
(Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Sophie Hares)