Human rights groups have urged the Azerbaijani government to release dozens of LGBT people from jail after reports of mass arrests and abuse.
International advocacy group ILGA said it was hard to gauge the scale of the alleged crackdown – reported to have stretched over the past two weeks – but said the country was well known for its poor treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.
Lawyers for some of those arrested said their clients had been subjected to beatings, verbal abuse and forced medical examinations, the group said.
The reports could not be independently verified.
“There is no justification for this indiscriminate targeting of people perceived to be members of the LGBTI community,” said ILGA’s executive director in Europe, Evelyne Paradis.
“(We) are worried about the fate of the victims of these raids, and are calling for the immediate release of anyone still in detention,” she added in a statement.
The government’s Ministry of Internal Affairs has responded to criticism by activists in the past by claiming that the raids were not a specific attack on LGBT people but instead a crackdown on prostitution.
An unnamed official told Azerbaijan news website Caucasian Knot: “In our country, sex minority members have never been persecuted”.
British gay rights group Stonewall said the authorities had claimed the arrests were part of a crackdown on prostitution, but activists said LGBT people had been singled out.
Trans women have had their heads forcibly shaven, it added.
Local activists said at least 50 gay and trans people have been detained in police raids across the capital, Baku, over the past two weeks.
“Main streets, metro stations and LGBT-friendly places like clubs, pubs and bars are the main targets,” a Baku-based activist, who preferred to remain anonymous, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Civil Rights Defenders, a human rights group based in Sweden, said the number of arrests could run into the hundreds, adding many were released only after giving up the addresses of fellow members of the LGBT community.
Speaking to local news agency APA, an interior ministry spokesman denied the raids singled out any sexual minorities, suggesting they were related to public order.
“The arrested are people who demonstratively show lack of respect towards others, annoy citizens and are believed by health authorities to carry infectious diseases,” spokesman Eskhan Zakhidov was quoted as saying.
Homosexuality was legalised in 2000 in Azerbaijan but the post-Soviet, Caucasian country was ranked the worst in Europe for LGBT people in a 2016 survey by ILGA.
The alleged arrests followed a crackdown on LGBT people in nearby Chechnya, where more than 100 gay men were believed to have been rounded up and tortured earlier this year.
Additional reporting by Reuters