BAKU: Sweden's Loreen won the Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan on Sunday before an international TV audience of 100 million, days after angering Azeri authorities by meeting rights activists critical of the host country's human rights record.
Opposition groups have used the Eurovision spotlight, intended by Azerbaijan to promote the oil-rich country as a destination for tourism and business, to demand democratic reform and the resignation of the government.
Dozens of peaceful protesters have been arrested this month in Baku. Activists say some buildings in the centre of the city were torn down to make way for the Eurovision arena, an
extravagantly illuminated 23,000-seat "Crystal Hall" on the shores of the Capsian Sea, and residents were forcibly evicted without proper compensation.
The 28-year-old pop singer won with the song "Euphoria" in the annual competition of 42 countries, delighting viewers and the contest's professional judges and dancing barefoot as she
sang. After the show, traditionally heavy on kitsch, bizarre costumes and dramatic presentation but low on politics, Loreen steered clear of any controversial statements.
"This is about all of us! Thank you so very much!" she told a news conference. "Time has stopped," Loreen said about her feelings after she was announced as winner.
ussia's entry, rural folk group Buranovskiye Babushki (Grannies from Buranovo), dressed in traditional peasant dress and somewhat incongruous in the dancing spotlights, came in
second. Serbia's Zeljko Joksimovic was third.
Last week, Loreen met activists who accuse the government of forcing people from their homes for the building of the hall, an accusation Baku denies. Azeri authorities accused her of making political statements that had no place at a musical event.
"Human rights are violated in Azerbaijan every day," the opposition newspaper Azadliq quoted Loreen as saying after last week's encounter. "One should not be silent about such things."
Opposition activists and international rights groups accuse President Ilham Aliyev of stifling dissent in the southern Caucasus nation, which became independent of the Soviet Union in
1991. Aliyev, who denies the accusation, has run the country since 2003, when he succeeded his father. AGENCIES