BAKU (Reuters) - Azerbaijan's president has built a glittering "Crystal Hall" to host a song festival watched around the world, but critics say the government has trampled on people's rights in razing homes for the country's big night in the spotlight.
Eldar Gasimov and Nigar Jamal won the oil-producing state the right to host the annual Eurovision song contest on May 26 by winning the event last year in Germany with their love song "Running Scared".
Gleaming glass and concrete skyscrapers already dominate Baku's skyline and expensive cars cruise past Dior, Armani and Tiffany & Co. boutiques on Oilman Avenue by the Caspian Sea.
But, flush with cash from oil and gas sales, mainly Muslim Azerbaijan has spent 50 million manats on a city facelift intended to show its achievements since it became independent of Moscow in 1991.
It has also spent an undisclosed sum on building the spectacular 23,000-seat rectangular Crystal Hall on the shores of the Caspian Sea.
In the past few years, entire districts have been swept away to make space for parks, roads, luxury apartment blocks and a shopping centre as part of a redesign of the city of 2 million that preceded the Eurovision victory.
Human rights groups say some buildings in the centre have been razed specifically 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 whole event.
"The Azerbaijani government is not just demolishing homes, it's destroying people's lives," said Jane Buchanan, senior Europe and Central Asia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, an international rights watchdog.
"Eurovision gives the government an opportunity to showcase Baku to thousands of visitors and millions of television viewers," she said. "But instead, Azerbaijan's government is showcasing its disregard for human rights by forcing people from their homes steps away from the contest site."
Critics also see the makeover as an attempt to hide the yawning gap between rich and poor, rampant corruption and a lop-sided oil-dependent economy in the country of nine million.
Although Azerbaijan has made progress in raising living standards in the past two decades, its human rights record has been repeatedly criticised under President Ilham Aliyev and his father Heydar Aliyev, whom he succeeded in
Azeri officials dismiss the criticism of its preparations for the contest, which will be broadcast to a huge international audience, saying everything has been done in line with the law.
"For some, the European Song Contest is a big and beautiful holiday, while for others it's just a reason for a political provocation," said Mehriban Aliyeva, Azerbaijan's first lady and the head of the Eurovision organising committee.
Local authorities also defend the demolitions, saying they have offered residents compensation or resettlement.
But at least some of those forced out of their homes say the compensation for losing their home is inadequate.
"It's impossible to find a decent lodging for the money they've paid us," 35-year-old Ruslan, who declined to give his last name for fear of reprisals, told Reuters in Baku.
He and his mother were among 72 families living in a nine-storey apartment block. Families which refused to leave had their electricity, gas and water cut off, while the winter temperatures fell to century lows, residents say.
Ruslan left the two-room flat last month after living there for 25 years. He was given 88,500 manats and is now renting an apartment, which the city authorities help pay for.
An average two-room apartment costs about $200,000 in central Baku.
In some cases apartment buildings have been torn down even though court cases were still pending, and residents forced out at night, Human Rights Watch says.
The watchdog has also called for an impartial investigation into allegations that police beat two young musicians who were detained at a protest rally at which Aliyev was criticised on March 17.
The song contest, which causes considerable excitement in many countries' show business communities, has also courted avoid controversy in other ways this year.
Armenia pulled out of the contest this month, underscoring tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mainly Armenian-populated enclave inside Azerbaijan which Armenian forces seized control of after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Armenia's Public Television said that despite security guarantees by the Azeri authorities, Aliyev had described his country's neighbour as enemy number one.
Amnesty International urged Azerbaijan last month to address the "unsavoury truth of its record on human rights" and release 16 people it described as prisoners of conscience.
"Azerbaijan will no doubt offer an opulent stage to voices from across Europe, but outside the concert hall, few critical voices are tolerated," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's Europe and Central Asia Deputy Programme Director.
"Opposition protests have effectively been criminalised. Peaceful protesters have been detained, while journalists and NGOs have faced threats and harassment," he said.
Writing by Margarita Antidze,; Editing by Timothy Heritage