Panorama goes undercover inside Eurovision host nation Azerbaijan to reveal the truth about this secretive country and its approach to the world's most watched non-sporting event.
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There are just five days to go to Eurovision. The final of the most
watched, non-sporting contest in the world. A song competition that
attracts 120 million viewers worldwide.
# Only love can save set you free. # Engelbert Humperdinck is
representing the UK, but this year, it's in a country which is no
ordinary host nation. We're under cover in the former Soviet Republic
of Azerbaijan. We are being followed again. Two government
agents were waiting for us in the hotel this morning. Home to a
ruling dynasty, accused of exploiting the contest.
The President of Azerbaijan, the Government of Azerbaijan is
building its propaganda on Eurovision.
A country where a Eurovision vote attracts attention from state
security. TRANSLATION: They asked why I voted
for Armenia, they took a statement and applied pressure.
Where just making fun of regime may land you in jail.
At the end we were sentenced to two and two-and-a-half years in prison.
In fact, if you were marking Azerbaijan's human rights record,
We arrive on a chilly April evening. Azerbaijan does not welcome
investigative journalists. So we are here as tourists, unsure what
will happen if we are caught. The interviews to be done secretly
indoors. Any outdoor filming will be done on a tourist camera.
This is the song that won them last year's competition, and with it the
right to host this year's competition, Running Scared. Some
people in Azerbaijan have been A hilltop high above the capital,
Baku. The blame is for the country's war
dead. It is also a symbol of the vast gas and oil reserves that led
the ancients to call this place the Land of Fire. Azerbaijan produces
almost 1 million barrels of oil a day. The revenues have helped to
make the ruling family, Ilham Aliyev, his wife and three children,
fabulously rich, along with their inner circle.
Just across there is down town Baku it looks out over the Caspian Sea
and if you look this way, you can find the development that
Azerbaijan has spent so much money on to impress the world. The
enormous flag pole, it is 40 storeys high. To the left, is Baka
Chrystal Hall. Built specifically for the Eurovision Song Contest. It
is going to seat more than 20,000 people. Most in the UK view the
song contest with a large dose of irony.
# All kinds of everything... # Its high kitsch charm stretches back to
decades. # Power to all our friends. #
# Water lieu, I was defeated... # # But if you want to see some more.
# Eurovision organisers are determined that politics and the
pop don't mix. The Eurovision is fantastic. I
think that the artist's job is to draw attention to something. It is
not our job to do the rest, there are people like politician,
journalists, people like yourself in the media, you do the rest.
COMMENTATOR: There we have it. The winner of the Eurovision Song
Contest is Azerbaijan. It was not just last year's winning
act breathless with excitement. The regime must have been too. Because
in Azerbaijan, the competition is up there with hosting the football
World Cup or the Olympics. Criticised by some as repressive,
this is a chance for Azerbaijan to sing a song of respectability.
The first family of Azerbaijan is building its propaganda. The
President of Azerbaijan, the government of's is building its
propaganda on Eurovision. It is not fair. I mean it is not fair. That's
Though the regime denies it, Azerbaijan has previously taken
advantage of the contest for political ends.
# How can I stay. # In 2009, this was the entry of their long-time
enemy, Armenia. They fought a bloody border conflict, one that is
smouldering, so whiles we watch the entry in Azerbaijan, someone pulled
the plug for their entry. Watching that night was Rovshan Nasirli, a
pro-democracy supporter. I took out the form, thought about
who to vote for. When the act for Armenia performed, the Azerbaijan
TV stopped the broadcast. COMMENTATOR: Now it is time to
vote... TRANSLATION: It was a protest, I
voted for Armenia. What Rovshan Nasirli did may not
sound like an apolitical statement, but in Azerbaijan, voting for the
enemy, even in a song competition, it is a risk.
Do you have sympathy or support for Armenia, is that what you voted for
them? I didn't even hear the song it was just a protest.
COMMENTATOR: The lines are closed. Please, don't call.
Or, if you are in Azerbaijan, you may end up in the Ministry of
National Security. TRANSLATION: I didn't want to go at
first. They said that the mobile phone number was a part of a
criminal investigation. Other viewers who voted for Armenia were
also questioned. TRANSLATION: They asked why I voted
for Armenia, they took a statement and applied pressure.
Were you scared? TRANSLATION: No, I was not scared.
We just had an argument. They threatened that they were
going to hold me there, that they would show me on TV.
This year, the Armenians have pulled out, afraid for the safety
of their contestants. The people who run Eurovision are
based here in Geneva. The European Broadcasting Union sets the rules.
Key, is that the contest remains apolitical.
In 2009, there were a number of people who vote for Armenia who
were taken in for questioning? is unacceptable.
But it shows us that the Azerbaijan government, the regime has plot
sized the song contest already? That is what we try to prevent, but
they try and that is why we have strict rules and try to prevent it.
Driving through the capital, Baku, a Big Brother figure gazes down. It
is the face of a former hardline ruler from the Soviet ruler, Heydar
Aliyev. He became the President after a
coup. Before dying he handed power to his son, Ilham Aliyev, the
current President. This is his wife, the glamorous Mehriban. The two
style-conscious daughters, Leyla living in London, and Arzu. There
is a son, too, 15-year-old, Heydar Junior, when has acquired a vast
wealth as a tender age. More of the First Family later.
We went to meet activist and journalist, Emin Huseynov, from the
Institute for Reporters' freedom and Safety.
These are the offices? Yes. The staff here take it in turns to
stay in the office overnight so that the secret police cannot break
in and plant bugs. TRANSLATION: The government tried
to control us and keep us under surveillance. They use different
means to provoke us. They can arrest journalists on trumped up
charges. They kill them. They would not be hard-pressed to find and
punish journalists. Emin Huseynov was beaten. In the
2003 presidential election, where we saw Ilham Aliyev come to power.
Then again in an unprovoked attack in 2008, when he was arrested.
TRANSLATION: My imprisonment was ordered from above. These days they
don't beat meefplt but other journalists, -- beat me, but other
journalists, because I'm experienced and well-known.
Another journalist, Elmar Huseynov was renowned for his hard-hitting
criticism of the ream. He was convicted of insulting the nation,
harassed, intimidated, jailed. Then in 2005, he arrived home to find
someone waiting for him. He was shot seven times and the murder is
unsolved. Many other government critics are
in jail. Human rights groups say that the
regime has around 70 political prisoners.
This is how the US embassy described Ilham Aliyev in a leaked
We're off to a rare event on the outskirts of Baku. An opposition
rally, sanctioned by the regime. It was going to be difficult to
pose as tourists here. The secret police were not so secret.
Our fixer had started to point them out.
Can you see the guy on the ledge coming up on the ledge, he is
filming. There are various other guys in
dark sunglass and suits. Those who attend know that they may
be identified. Though, what will happen to the information is
unclear. This is more about intimidation.
They have to get permission to hold a demonstration like this. This is
only the second time since 2006 that they have been allowed to do
it. It is not great mystery why. It is because world attention is now
on Azerbaijan because of the Eurovision Song Contest.
We wanted to speak to some of those attending, but our translator said
that would single them out, that they could risk arrest. Instead, an
opposition leaders, arranged to meet with us the following day.
We left, not wanting to push our luck, but it seemed we were too
late. The undercover agent is following
us. We should go to a hotel that is not ours? Yes, hang out there until
they are gone. We then lost them.
The next morning, we arrived at the apartment of the opposition leader.
TRANSLATION: Many of my relatives are under arrest. The rest were
sacked from their jobs. My passport was taken away from me seven years
ago. Our party offices have been seized from us. Sometimes the
government stages a rally in front of my house. They demand that I
leave the country. We are under constant pressure and control.
Despite all of that, he stood for Parliament, twice.
After the 2005 election, European monitors reported intimidation,
ballot box stuffing and other problems. This is how the regime
dealt with the peaceful protest that followed.
When you leave the house are you followed?
TRANSLATION: Every time they accompany me. It is like they are
sending me a message. We are always with you, that they shir my life.
That they receive e-- that they share my life, that they receive my
messages, I have been living like this for a long time.
Today we have brought our tale right to his door. We have been
here two days, we know we are being followed now. There were three men
in the hotel reception it morning. They followed us here in a car. We
have finished an interview and the Moments later, they followed us
again. On the surface, Baku appears like any prosperous European city.
Familiar brands, status cars, eye- catching architecture, but beneath
the surface the power of the ruling family is never far away. The
president's wife, Mehriban, was elected to Parliament with an
implausible 94% of the votes. We put allegations of rigged elections
to the London ambassador. What I can tell you definitely is that
each election is better than the previous one, of course. Is it
realistic baton MP gets 94%? -- that an MP? Why not? When not?
in an election, it is just inconceivable. It cannot be fed,
can it? It can and it cannot be, I don't know. I do not know what you
are speaking about. This is the president's wife, when she was
elected to Parliament. With all my confidence, I will tell you that
that was definitely real, confident, and she is capable to get even, I
am sincere, more than that. First Lady is also the chairwoman
of Azerbaijan's Eurovision committee and she has been able to
rope in the family. Her son-in-law, Emin Agalarov, will sink to the
audience while the viewers cast their votes. -- will sing.
It looks suspiciously like a family affair and another opportunity for
them to promote themselves as the ruling family. That was my first
reaction as well when I heard it. And what have you done about it?
cannot do anything about it. Is it acceptable? I cannot hide, it was
amazing. Having her son-in-law on stage was probably more sort of
surprising, and I have been told that he is actually a really good
singer. The impression it gives is that it is exploiting Eurovision
for a platform. Yes, the impression is, is this really necessary? I
have to admit that. One musician knew that he would never be
appearing at the Eurovision. He is in a dangerous game of writing
This is what he is singing about. The bulldozing of apartments close
to the Eurovision arena. Old, Communist blocs are not what the
regime once the Eurovision audience to see. They ordered the residents
to leave, many refused, and so the authorities moved in while some
were still inside. TRANSLATION: It was around 5
o'clock in the morning when I heard the noise and the building shook. A
bulldozer had started demolishing the building. We were scared and I
ran out with my children. evictions have happened across Baku
but accelerated after Azerbaijan won the right to host Eurovision.
They had been condemned by human rights groups around the world. But
the contest organisers compare what has happened to the London Olympics.
To be very frank, I think evictions are taking place everywhere. It is
more about the way you are doing it, about proper procedure and
compensation, and I cannot comment because I don't know, but again,
when the Olympic village was built in London, there were evictions and
you had protests. But people were subsidised and given plenty of
notice. Yes, but they thought what was offered was not good enough.
Those kinds of discussions you will find in every country. Although
compensated, some say they only received a fraction of the market
price. The regime says the evictions were not related to the
contest and were part of the three- year reconstruction plan which
predates Eurovision. But what of Jamal, the man who sang about it? A
couple of months ago, he was on stage at a youth rally. Secret
police were in the crowd. A stranger heckled him to stop
This is 10 days in prison? Yes. says they tortured him and gave him
He has already fled the country. Stories like that have made the
organisers feel uneasy. How important is it for the EBU to
champion free speech? Every important, absolutely one of the
core values, because without freedom of expression you on not
able to fulfil the core remit. Azerbaijan does not respect free
speech, does it? No, it doesn't. This video Broca was sentenced to
two years in jail for satirising the regime -- blogger. His story
begins with the bill for two donkeys, which in agriculture
minister claimed cost 42,000 euros each. How much would it donkey
normally be? In Azerbaijan? 50 bucks! Rheumatic court that the
payments were a kick back and so Adnan made a satirical video --
rumours took hold. I thought if this donkey cost 42,000 euros, it
must be something special. He can probably play the violin and speak
five languages and has two degrees, what have you, so we put together
this mock press conference with the donkey. But someone in the regime
did not share his sense of humour. Two weeks later, this happened in a
restaurant. Two athletes approached us out of nowhere, shouted at us,
using profane language, and started beating us. They head-butted my
friend, he fell to the ground. When I tried to support him, they
started to beat me down. attackers were released but Adnan
and his friend ended up here, accused of assault in a Baku
courtroom in what was a thinly disguised political trial for two
satirists who had mocked the regime. First of all they dismissed most of
our witnesses, they dismissed our evidence on some baseless grounds.
After that, they made all the policemen come and testify against
us. He served 17 months in jail. The government says it is emerging
from the shadow of its Soviet past. And free speech is guaranteed under
the constitution. We are only 20 years old. Definitely, 20 years is
not much time. I don't say we are perfect, everything is perfect. We
do have problems of course. remains one of the 40 most corrupt
countries in the world. This is the reality for many. Groom poverty,
meagre pensions, poor sanitation -- grim poverty. Health-service
dominated by a culture of bribes. Its oil wealth remains in the hands
In public places, people refuse to speak to us about the Aliyev regime,
It is a mafia state. And two runs the Mafia? I would say it is the
president and his family. -- who runs the Mafia?
Khadija Ismailova specialises in investigating the ruling family's
welfare. In the run-up to Eurovision, it seems she has paid a
heavy price. One day, she received this in the post. And inside the
envelope there was a small note on And six peaches. -- pictures. They
were taken from video footage and they were showing me engaged in
sexual relations. How had they managed to take the pictures?
planted a camera into my bedroom. They had been watching me.
waiting for something that they could effectively blackmail you
with? Yes, that is what happened. The video was published on a
website. By that time she and her friends inspected the flat, the
secret cameras had gone. Only drill halls and wiring remains. It was
shocking. The first thing I discovered, I am very angry. And
the anger was bigger than fear. It was big event anything. The first
thing I did, I told myself, this is not going to affect my work.
President Aliyev draws an official salary of less than �150,000 a year,
but Panorama has discovered that his immediate family have corporate
interests in a range of companies registered in the secrecy
jurisdiction of Panama. Wherever you turn in Baku, it seems you are
never too far away from the financial tentacles of the ruling
family. Even when you use the phone, the president's daughters are
listed as directors of companies linked to one of the main telephone
networks. If you wanted to buy gold, the president's daughters might
help you out again because they have acquired a financial stake in
a gold mine in the west of the country. The smartest hotel in Baku,
one of the people behind it is the president's 15-year-old son. He
also bought property on the luxury Palm Island development in Dubai.
Worth $40 million. Not bad for a schoolboy. Were you embarrassed at
all when you heard that the president's son has some real
estate on the Dubai Palm? I don't believe in everything that is in
the newspapers, frankly speaking. The family of President Aliyev have
Fyvie is companies based in Panama and I am struggling to understand
the connection between Panama and Azerbaijan, have various companies.
I do not have that information. this a delicate area to discuss?
Definitely, because I am not a member of the family. I cannot
answer the issues related to the family. The family refused to
answer these questions. Becky, Engel bird has been on the
publicity trail -- back in the UK, Engelbert has been on the publicity
trail. We wanted to ask him how he felt about the human rights record
in Azerbaijan but his management seemed keen that he should not
speak to us. I am from the BBC and I wanted to
know what it means for you to be representing your country. I am
just excited. I love the idea. have got a plane to catch. Are you
worried there is a danger of being seen to endorse the regime? I am
not worried about anything. As a Eurovision contest and, perhaps you
would not expect him to comment on politics. The organisers how were
they insist they are not endorsing the regime or the way it behaves,
just playing by the rules. We will see what is coming on in Azerbaijan
and it for probably improve because of the Eurovision Song Contest, so
that is the good part, but why are we going with it to Azerbaijan?
Because it is according to the rules. The Eurovision has for the
moment allowed us to pull back the curtain on this regime but the
question is, what will happen once the cameras have gone? Next week:
Panorama goes undercover inside Azerbaijan, the host country of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, to discover the extraordinary truth about this secretive country and its approach to the world's most watched non-sporting event.
Reporter Paul Kenyon finds out how the contest has been used as a tool of intimidation: viewers have been interrogated for voting for the nation's long-term enemy, Armenia; a protest singer has been told to flee before Eurovision or he will be thrown in jail; and dozens have had their homes bulldozed to make way for the Eurovision event itself.
The US embassy in Baku has compared the ruling family to the Mafia. The regime has held onto power through a combination of rigged elections, jailing opponents, and by irregular control of the country's vast oil wealth. So, why did the organisers of the world's best-loved music event agree to host it in Azerbaijan?