BAKU A group of hackers calling themselves Cyberwarriors for Freedom attacked the official websites of the Eurovision song contest on Thursday, demanding that the host nation, Azerbaijan, cancel next week's competition.
Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim ex-Soviet republic, won the right to host the contest by winning last year's event in Germany, and sees the competition as a chance to showcase the country. The grand finale is scheduled for May 26.
But activist groups advocating a broad spectrum of issues - from human rights to religion - have also sought to seize the occasion to draw attention to their campaigns.
In an Azeri-language message on the affected websites, the little-known hacker group demanded President Ilham Aliyev cancel the event altogether.
"In response to the indifference of the Aliyev regime to calls ... not hold the Eurovision competition, we have carried out a hacking attack on a series of websites," it wrote.
"Our demand is to stop carrying out Eurovision 2012 in Baku and not allow gay parades, otherwise there is no life for Aliyev's regime."
The four websites, including www.eurovision.az and www.eurovisionaz.com, were down as of late Thursday.
The song contest has cast a spotlight on Azerbaijan's human rights record and exposed deep religious rifts in the officially secular country. Azeri officials in private blame neighboring Iran for Islam's growing influence in the country.
Deputy Minister of Communications and Information Technologies Iltimas Mamedov said security forces were trying to determine the identify of the group and where it was based.
"Together with special forces an investigation is being carried out into the attack on the Eurovision sites and the origins of the hacker group," he told Reuters.
Azerbaijan has spent millions on a city facelift intended to showcase its achievements since it became independent from Moscow in 1991, including the construction of a "Crystal Palace" where the contest will be held.
Rights groups say homes in the area of the venue have been destroyed to free up space around the site.
Amnesty International on Thursday said Azeri authorities should release detained opposition activists and guarantee freedom of expression for protesters planning peaceful demonstrations ahead of the contest.
Critics accuse Aliyev of clamping down on dissent but Baku says the country enjoys full freedom of speech.
"When viewers across the world tune in for the Eurovision this month, the most convincing way for Azerbaijan to present itself as a modern, progressive nation will be for the authorities to end their ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression," John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
Amnesty and Human Rights Watch said they welcomed the release of opposition activist Elnur Majidli, who was arrested together with hundreds other demonstrators at a peaceful demonstration in Baku in April 2011 but called for the release of another 17 activists who remain in prison.
(Writing by Thomas Grove and Margarita Antidze Editing by Maria Golovnina)