BAKU Swedish Eurovision Song Contest favourite Loreen strayed off script into a human rights row in Azerbaijan this week that has drowned out an annual European music show best known until now for its camp costumes and kitschy acts.
Loreen met with activists who accuse the government of Eurovision host Azerbaijan of human rights violations, some of which are related to the building of the arena where the song contest final will be held on Saturday night.
"Human rights are violated in Azerbaijan every day. One should not be silent about such things," Azeri opposition newspaper Azadliq quoted Loreen as saying after her meeting.
Millions of people across Europe will watch the contest on television and thousands of Eurovision fans are expected to pour into Baku, heading straight for the new 23,000-seat Crystal Hall where the show will be broadcast from.
Loreen, whose emotional performances on stage have made her a frontrunner among the 26 contestants, met with the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS), Human Rights Defenders, the organisation of Sweden and the House of Human Rights, according to Azeri news agency APA and Azadliq.
Hundreds of excited fans have already arrived in the oil-rich Azeri capital, which has undergone a $60 million facelift with the shiny rectangular Crystal Hall on the shores of the Caspian Sea at the centre of the celebrations.
The multi-purpose Crystal Hall was built by a German firm in eight months for an undisclosed sum of money.
But human rights groups say some buildings in the centre of Baku were specifically torn down with the song contest in mind and that the forced eviction of residents, especially in areas around the Crystal Hall, casts a shadow over the event.
Azeri authorities responded by criticising Loreen for making political statements.
"Unfortunately there are some attempts of politicisation. The musical event cannot be politicised," said Ali Hasanov, head of the public and political issues department at the presidential administration.
Loreen evaded questions about her meeting with activists at a press conference after the contest semi-final on Friday.
"There are two parts of me. One that is private and one that is my work that I'm doing here. Just today I want to keep the focus on this energy that we created right now," she said in response to a question from Reuters.
Despite the effort to highlight progress that the oil-producing nation of nine million people has made since independence in 1991, critics of President Ilham Aliyev's government have taken the Eurovision opportunity to air allegations of human rights abuses.
Critics accuse Aliyev, who in 2003 succeeded his father to the presidency of the Caspian Sea country north of Iran, of clamping down on dissent, but Baku says the country enjoys full freedom of speech and a vibrant opposition press.
Dozens of peaceful protesters were arrested this month in central Baku during rallies and marches demanding democracy and the resignation of the government.
"A stern crackdown of freedom of expression, dissent, NGOs, critical journalists, in fact anyone who criticises the Aliyev regime too strongly, and we've seen this continue right up until the Eurovision Song Contest," Amnesty International Europe and Central Asia director John Dalhuisen told Reuters.
Azerbaijan won the right to host the annual contest last year in Germany with the victory of its entry, the love song "Running Scared", from Eldar Gasimov and Nigar Jamal, better known as Ell/Nikki.
(Additional reporting by Patrick Lannin in Stockholm; editing by)
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