Babi Badalov is an old friend of ours. From the late eighties until the late nineties, Babi was one of the brightest figures on the Petersburg independent art scene, especially that part of it that centered on the artists squat at Pushkinskaya 10. When the squat was closed, in the late nineties (to be replaced by an “official” alternative arts center with much less room for artist studios and independent creativity), Babi fell on hard times, eventually returning to his home country of Azerbaijan. He continued to pursue his art there, although under quite different circumstances. Not only is Babi a radical artist in the personal sense of the word, he is also openly gay. Faced with a society that was growing both less tolerant of political dissent and becoming more socially conservative, Babi found a new home in Cardiff, Wales. There he has become fully integrated into the local arts community. He has also become the focus of a spirited campaign, led by No Borders South Wales, to support his asylum application and, in the last few months, after his application was rejected, to resist his repatriation to Azerbaijan.
On September 16, Babi was detained during his weekly sign-in at the UK Border Agency and taken to the Rumney Police Station. On Thursday morning, Babi was transferred to the Campsfield Immigration Removal Centre. It has now been learned that British authorities are planning to deport him to Azerbaijan on Saturday, on an Azerbaijan Airlines flight from London to Baku.
The No Borders South Wales blog has detailed information about the history of Babi’s asylum case, the actions that have been taken in his defense, and what we can do to support him. For example, No Borders has suggested sending the following letter to Azerbaijan Airlines, urging them not to cooperate with immigration authorities:
Re: Forced Removal of Babakan Badalov (Babi)
I understand that Babi is due to be removed from the UK against his will on Azerbaijan Airways flight J20008 at 8pm on Saturday 20th September from Heathrow. I am writing to ask you to please intervene to stop this from happening.
Babi has been detained by the UK Border Agency whilst preparing a fresh claim for asylum based on new, and as yet unseen, evidence. He is in an extremely precarious state of mental health, and has expressed suicidal tendencies since being taken into detention on Tuesday this week. Put simply, Babi is not medically fit to travel.
Babi is an openly gay artist who has faced persecution in Azerbaijan because of his sexuality and because of the radical and critical nature of his art. A recent ILGA report into the human rights of Gay people in Azerbaijan states that the price of open homosexuality is often “estrangement from family, bullying, social exclusion, discrimination, blackmailing and hate crimes”. Similarly an Amnesty International report into freedom of expression in the country cited numerous instances of “harassment including physical abuse at the hands of law enforcement officials” and a number of “violent attacks which have led to serious injury and even death”. He has already experienced beatings and hate crimes: on his return he faces more of the same and perhaps worse.
I am aware that airlines are able to exercise discretion about carrying unwilling deportees, and are not obliged to do so. If not for ethical or moral reasons then surely you can see that it is bad for business for you to be seen carrying unwilling prisoners who are unfit for air travel. I therefore implore you to reconsider Azerbaijan Airways’ position on this.
NBSW has also prepared this letter (now updated in light of Babi’s imminent deportation) for dispatch to the UK Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith:
Dear Home Secretary,
Re: Babakhan Badalov Home Office reference B1234623
I have made myself familiar with this case.
Babakhan Badalov (Babi) was detained on 16th September and is scheduled to be removed on 20th September.
Babi is an openly gay, internationally renowned radical artist and poet from Azerbaijan. His art and poetry have been explicitly critical of the government and present/past presidents. These factors have led Babi to become a target of repression and persecution over many years. He has been described by the government and prominent public figures as being a traitor to Azerbaijan.
Because of his sexuality and the radical nature of his creative activities, he has endured government-led suppression from the Ministry of National Security (MNS – Azerbaijan’s modern-day version of the KGB), together with physical and mental abuse from other sectors of society. All this has taken place in a Muslim country, where homosexuality remains an extremely taboo subject. This led one of Babi’s brothers to threaten to kill him because of the shame which he has brought on the family. He has also been disowned by his family when they learnt of his sexuality.
As a result of beatings and bullying over the years Babi has only eight teeth remaining and suffers from a number of mental health problems – such as depression anxiety and panic-attacks, suicidal tendencies, together with insomnia for which he is medicated. Babi’s solicitor has been making arrangements for him to be assessed by both a psychiatrist and neurologist.
Upon arriving in the UK, Babi was detained in four different detention centers for thirty-two days, a period which was illegally extended for three days purely due to transport difficulties.
Since arriving in Cardiff in December 2006, Babi has become a valued member of his local community as well as the arts and gay communities. In the short time he has lived in Cardiff he has made himself an asset to Cardiff and Wales as a whole. Because of both the socially engaged nature of his art, as well as his international reputation as one of Azerbaijan’s leading contemporary artists, Babi brings with him a wealth of cultural capital that is of immense value, both to South Wales and beyond. Babi’s current art practice involves making dolls from discarded items (mainly clothes and plastic bags) which he collects from the streets of Cardiff. In so doing he provides both a public service and makes us think about our relationship with our environment and how we look after it. These dolls have been exhibited all over the world.
This year Babi took part in Refugee Week in Cardiff, giving a free art workshop. He donated one of his pieces to the ‘Arts Call for Darfur’ project which raises money for Save the Children. Babi’s art is also part of a new exhibition which is to open later this month at the TactileBOSCH gallery in Cardiff.
Despite the many difficulties with which he is faced, Babi remains active in other areas of the arts. He is still producing poetry, is writing a book about his art/gay life experiences and is also working on a film addressing the rise of Muslim fundamentalism. This latter work, as well as many other aspects of his art, would of course be impossible in his country of origin.
For the first time in his life, Babi felt happy and safe in Cardiff. He felt able to openly express himself artistically, politically and with regard to his sexuality, without associated feelings of fear, shame and imminent repression.
If Babi is forced to return to Azerbaijan he faces an uncertain and unhappy future. He will undoubtedly face severe persecution, from the state, community and family.
I urge you to reconsider your decision to remove Babi. Before being detained his solicitor was in the process of gathering further evidence of the abuse he suffered in Azerbaijan. This would have enabled him to submit a fresh claim for asylum and allow him the chance of living free from the abuse and fear he will experience if he is forced to return.
Welsh activists and local friends are concerned about Babi’s mental state:
Babi was already in a very fragile mental state before his arrest, and No Borders South Wales can report that he was a complete wreck when a friend and member of the campaign was able to visit him in the police cell. Friend and activist Hywel Bishop said:
“I’ve never seen anyone so scared. If Babi gets sent home he faces persecution from the state for his art, beatings from the local community, as well as the threat of honour killing from his family because they can’t live with the fact that he’s gay.”
Typically Babi was also mindful of his art, and was concerned that his detention would stand in the way of his upcoming exhibition in Cardiff’s TactileBOSCH studio on 27th September and 14th October.
When he was informed that he was going to be detained and deported Babi responded by saying:
“I feel sick”
To which the UK Border agent told him:
“well you make us sick, you’re going back where you belong”
Babi somehow managed to send his friends this e-mail from Campsfield today (Friday):
hellofrom united kingdom campsfield detention center foor illegalimmigrantsi love 21 century united kingdom ministry internal affairs yanki go home officehere is so much fani am preparing for my installation on sept 27 in cardiff which idea based protect enviroment cardiffand burocratic space spice girks viktoria bekhem damian hirst is god and clelsea ownerhopefully they will not deport me and come to make my installation at tactile bosch art spacesir pol makkarthny last year i present you country at exhibition luigi pecci contemporary art museum in italy with my audio project which i made at bengali internet club in city road cardiff while i am still seeking asylum under fear panic insomnia named jacqui smith und gordon brown fraundshaftbaijani hate this civil sweet nice word