TBILISI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Police in Azerbaijan arrested four transgender sex workers this week in raids reminiscent of a mass crackdown in 2017 by the former Soviet state on its LGBT+ community, lawyers and rights activists said on Wednesday.
The arrests and abuses two years ago sparked global outcry and raised questions about minority rights and free expression in the mostly Muslim, Caucasian nation.
Activists hoped that speedy intervention this time would prevent a replay. Azeri police and the interior ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the arrests.
Local LGBT+ group Minority said the four detained were verbally abused by authorities, forced to undergo medical tests for sexually transmitted diseases but not physically maltreated.
Prostitution is illegal in Azerbaijan but LGBT+ sex-workers are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement, said Samad Rahimli, a Baku-based human rights lawyer, who had been directly in touch with two of those detained.
One person was held in a sting operation after being called to a hotel in the capital by a client only to find police waiting instead, he said. Circumstances surrounding the other detentions were not clear, he added.
Two sex workers were issued with fines then released while the others were sentenced to up to 15 days in jail on charges of hooliganism and resisting police orders, Rahimli said.
About a dozen others were also feared to have been held, according to Minority and Rahimli.
It was not clear if they had been released and any detention could not be independently verified.
An LGBT+ activist in Baku who preferred to remain anonymous said the police swoop had sparked apprehension among the small Azeri transgender community.
“They are worried, they don’t want to go out, they are super afraid,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Being gay is not illegal in Azerbaijan but the post-Soviet country is considered the worst in Europe for LGBT+ rights, according to a ranking by rights group ILGA.
In September 2017, more than 100 LGBT+ people were rounded up and subjected to electric shocks, beatings and a range of other humiliations, according to rights groups, in a crackdown that drew condemnation from the United Nations.
ILGA said reports of new arrests were alarming and urged the government to bring the detentions to a halt.
“It seems that law is applied arbitrarily to drive LGBTI communities underground,” Niamh Cullen, a spokeswoman for the group, said in a statement.
Ana Furtuna, program director for Eurasia at Civil Rights Defenders, a human rights group based in Sweden, said she hoped international pressure could help prevent any escalation.
“Azerbaijan is one of the most hostile European countries for LGBT people,” she said. “Our first concerns right now are for the safety and well-being of the individuals arrested and forcibly subjected to medical exams.”
Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org