Azeri Gay Rights Activist's Death Raises Difficult Questions

The suicide of a gay rights activist has drawn stark attention to the problems faced by sexual minorities in Azerbaijan.

Isa Shahmarli, the 20-year-old leader of the Free LGBT group, was found hanged on January 22.

He had left a suicide note in a Facebook status update.

“I am going. This country and this world are not for me.… I am leaving to become happy,” he wrote. “You are all to blame for my death. This world is not bright enough to contain all my colours. Goodbye.”

The day before Shahmarli died, he gave an interview to the online television station Meydan in which he said he dreamed of the day when same-sex couples could stroll through Baku holding hands.

Shahmarli’s flatmate Reyhan Babayeva told IWPR that when he first told his close friends from university that he was gay, they refused to keep it secret and told everyone.

“His course-mates laughed at him and once even beat him up. Then one of his relatives found out and told his family, and they threw him out of the house. His relationship with his father was difficult enough already,” she said.

Shahmarli’s death sparked passionate debate on Azerbaijani social media networks, with strong opinions expressed on both sides. Some praised Shahmarli for his courage and lamented his death, while others said the country was better off without him.

Tariel Qasimov, editor of the website, said that homosexuals rarely faced trouble from officials, but often got abuse from their own families.

“When relatives find out that someone in the family is gay or lesbian, it’s seen a disgrace, something shameful. In some cases people are forced to get married, and in others they are thrown out of their homes and left to fend for themselves,” he told IWPR.

“The majority of their friends abandon them, leaving them without understanding and support. There are many people who consider it their duty to shame and disgrace people and to laugh at them. In Azerbaijan, the majority of gays therefore conceal their orientation from relatives and friends.”

Matanat Azizova, head of the Women’s Resource Centre, disagrees that officials leave gay people alone. She says her organisation is regularly approached by people saying they have been beaten or abused by police officers.

“There was even a case where the police beat up a lad in his own home. They then stripped him naked and took him like that to the police station,” she said. “Sometimes people are blackmailed into giving false testimony against someone else.”

Azizova said gay people needed to work more with civil society organisations, but cautioned that substantive improvements would happen only if the wider human rights environment changed for the better.

Javid Nabiyev, head of the gay rights organisation Nefes, says the stigma extends to employment.

“We’ve done a survey among 500 representatives of large and small companies, and 70 per cent of respondents told us they would not employ homosexuals,” he told IWPR.

Nabiyev said that he himself was unable to get a job because of his work on gay rights.

Aydin Mirzazade, a member of parliament from the president’s Yeni Azerbaijan party, told IWPR that the constitution guaranteed equal rights to all, and anyone who faced discrimination or abuse should seek redress.

“There must be no violation of human rights, whether it’s based on someone’s orientation or some other characteristic,” he said. “If someone from a sexual minority has really been subjected to unlawful treatment or has come under pressure, they must go to the police, tell the media about it, and defend themselves in every way they can.”

Nika Musavi is an IWPR-trained freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.