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16 people have died and more than 60 have been injured in a deadly fire at an apartment building in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
Last week, during the morning of May 19, the massive fire quickly engulfed the 16-story apartment building which houses 408 residents in 107 flats. The blaze took hours to contain.
Should the fire have occurred during the night or over the weekend, the death and injury toll would have been much higher, experts reckon.
Azeri-style “Potemkin village”
The reason for the rapid spread of the fire was the poor quality of plastic paneling covering the building. While the cheap cladding gives the impression of fancy stone facing, it does not meet minimal safety requirements and is highly flammable. According to construction standards, the cladding should have been resistant to the temperatures of over 500 C , but caught fire at around 150 C.
The government’s recent ‘urban beautification’ initiative has turned Baku into a giant “Potemkin village”. In the rush to modernize Baku ahead of the European Games, safety rules have been largely ignored in the construction of new skyscrapers.
As part of the drive to ready the city for international visitors, the authorities have ordered old Soviet-era buildings to be covered with plastic cladding, to give the impression of brand new buildings and beautifully ornamented fronts. However, the interiors of the buildings fail to meet minimum fire safety requirements.
There are no fire alarms or fire extinguishers.
It was no surprise, then, that by the time of the firefighting crew arrived, the building was fully consumed by the fire. Helicopters were scrambled when it became clear that the fire engines woul not be able to extinguish the fire.
How did this happen: who is accountable?
Azerbaijan’s general prosecutor Zakir Garalov accused planners of allowing ‘low quality of plastic siding’ on the building. The head of Global Construction Company has been deemed responsible and was detained after the deadly fire. However, according to local sources, the company is actually owned by a member of ruling elite and the director is just a proxy. Several years ago, President Ilham Aliyev personally inaugurated the very Global Construction Company factory that manufactured the panels. With broad support from the government, Global Construction equipped around 800 buildings throughout the country with this dangerous plastic paneling.
Experts estimate that around one billion US dollars from the state budget has been spent on the deadly cladding, a striking example of how sophisticated corruption mechanisms in Azerbaijan have endangered the lives of thousands of people.
Under the pretext of the so-called beautification project, high-ranking officials have pocketed millions of US dollars through contracts related to renovation and stone-facing work. Following the deadly fire, the Ministry of Emergency Situations of Azerbaijan stated that over 200 skyscrapers had been covered with inflammable cladding.
In the wake of Tuesday’s tragedy, authorities started to dismantle the dangerous cladding from apartment blocks all over Azerbaijan. But they also decided not to remove the facades of approximately 200 buildings located in central parts of Baku, in an effort to maintain the appearance of a well-functioning, modern city for the European Games visitors. Officers from law enforcement agencies and the Ministry of Emergency Situations have been commissioned to watch the buildings. The potentially fatal cladding will only be dismantled once the visitors of the European Games have gone home.
Notably, at least three state agencies cleared the manufacture of the dangerous cladding – Polyurethane — by issuing fire safety compliance certificates. Initial investigations have revealed that the polyurethane was not mixed with the compound necessary to prevent rapid ignition. That material was costly, and company was unwilling to pay. Massive amounts of money have been misappropriated from the state budget. Large-scale corruption and lack of control over safety directly contributed to the tower block inferno last week.
The hosting of European Games is largely seen as a publicity stunt by the ruling establishment. The regime is spending millions of US dollars on its own publicity. This time, the regime has violated one of the very fundamental rights of Azerbaijani citizens—right to a life.
While the owners fronting the manufacturing companies have been arrested, the real culprits – those affiliated with the high echelons of the ruling establishment — are walking free. The companies that have been named responsible are in fact affiliates of offshore companies founded by relatives of top Azerbaijani officials.
Critics silenced ahead of the Games
Prior to the tower block inferno, Azerbaijani media and experts repeatedly voiced their concerns over the dangerous façade. True to form, the authorities did not respond.
Instead, the regime launched unprecedented repression on independent civil society organizations and media. The regime has been threatening, harassing, and jailing civil society advocates, journalists, and independent media outlets, restricting their ability to freely report on events and to hold governments accountable for their actions.
Key critics of human rights abuses have been thrown behind bars —among them human right defenders Leyla Yunus, Rasul Jafarov and Intigam Aliyev, and award-winning journalist Khadija Ismayilova, The authorities have illegally closed independent media outlets and NGOs in the run-up to the European Games. Many activists have fled the country to escape persecution by the regime.
No day of public mourning; Games publicity intensified
Despite the scale of the tragedy – in which several children died – no public mourning day has been announced. Instead, the authorities have intensified publicity in the run-up to the European Games. Among those died was a 21-year old volunteer for the European Games, Ulker Eyvazova, along with her mother and younger brother. International media reported on the incident, showing pictures of a 3-year girl killed in the deadly fire. President of the European Council Donald Tusk, Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland, President of European Olympic Committee Patrick Hickey, and other officials around the world have sent their condolences to Azerbaijani people.
“Values are more important than salary”
Following the deadly Baku fire, on 20 May, Head Supervisor of Baku 2015 Rasim Adjalov announced his resignation on Facebook, writing that values were more important than his salary.