(Brussels) – In recent years, Azerbaijani authorities have intensified a crackdown on civil society and devastated critical voices, without regard for domestic or international law. This crackdown is in stark contrast to the polished image of a modern and prosperous European state that President Ilham Aliyev has presented to outside observers.
The joint report, “Breaking Point in Azerbaijan: Promotion and glamour abroad, Repression and imprisonment at home” by Freedom Now and the Human Rights House Network, provides a comprehensive analysis of the methods Azerbaijani authorities are using to repress civil society in the country.
“It is clear that Azerbaijan has reached a breaking point,” said Maran Turner, Executive Director of Freedom Now. “Since 2009, Azerbaijan has adopted legislation, in direct opposition to the country’s obligations under international law, which restricts the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association and criminalises the right to be a human rights defender. This legislation reveals a regime which has no intent to fulfil its obligations to the international community or its own citizens.”
In addition to the legislative measures to supress civil society, the report documents the strategies used by the Azerbaijani authorities to silence human rights activists. These strategies fall into three categories: First, authorities rely on “patently politically-motivated charges,” such as inciting hatred, mass disorder, and treason. Second, authorities have been known to resort to “fabricated charges,” including drug and weapon charges, and hooliganism. Third, the government has more recently confounded and alarmed international observers through the use of special “organization-directed charges.” The latter include charges of illegal business activity, tax evasion, and abuse of office, and rely upon a deeply flawed legal theory.
“The Azerbaijani authorities must immediately and unconditionally release and rehabilitate all leading civil society actors,” said Florian Irminger, Head of Advocacy at the Human Rights House Foundation. “The authorities must also conduct a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation into all cases of detention, torture, and other human rights abuses directed against human rights defenders, journalists and activists, and provide appropriate compensation to the victims of such violations. Until that time, the international community must cease sending high level representatives to economic, sporting, and cultural events organised in Azerbaijan.”
Serious due process violations
The report sheds light on the wrongful imprisonment of leading civil society actors, such as human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev; human rights defenders Rasul Jafarov, Leyla Yunus, and her husband Arif Yunus; independent election observer Anar Mammadli; investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova; opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov; and N!DA activists.
The report documents serious procedural and due process violations before and during the trials of these prisoners of conscience, including incidents of torture or mistreatment, lack of access to lawyers, dismissal of routine motions, and exclusion of vital evidence introduced by defence lawyers.
The report sets out specific recommendations to the international community, including:
• All political leaders and institutions should publicly and privately call for the immediate and unconditional release of all leading civil society actors.
• Political leaders of all states, the European Union, and regional and international organizations must stop honouring events organised in Azerbaijan with their presence at opening and closing ceremonies, as long as the government has not taken clear steps to fulfil its obligations under international law and its commitments to the Council of Europe to release prisoners of conscience.
• In the present circumstances and given the lack of good faith in its interaction with Council of Europe institutions, especially in regard to the execution of European Court judgments, suspend the credentials of the delegation of Azerbaijan to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Establish a rapporteur group on Azerbaijan at the Committee of Ministers to follow-up on the implementation of the Council of Europe Plan of Action adopted in 2014.
• Request that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights present to the Human Rights Council, in an interactive dialogue, a comprehensive report on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan and the environment for human rights defenders in the country.
• Apply targeted sanctions against those responsible for the misuse of law to imprison human rights defenders, journalists and activists, including restricting rights to travel abroad and freezes of personal assets of those violating the rights of individuals, such as prosecutors and judges.
About the authors of the report:
Freedom Now is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that works to free prisoners of conscience through legal, political, and public relations advocacy. Based in Washington, D.C., Freedom Now serves individuals who have been wrongly imprisoned all over the world, seeking their freedom from detention and justice for the violation of their most sacred human rights. Freedom Now represents individual prisoners of conscience as pro bono clients. Since 2001, we have represented more than 100 individuals in 24 countries. Each of these individuals represents a life saved and a voice restored.
Freedom Now has worked on Azerbaijan for more than five years, including providing legal assistance to prisoners of conscience, engaging in targeted political advocacy, and monitoring and reporting on human rights abuses. Among Freedom Now’s former clients are Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, Adnan Hajizade, and Emin Milli, all prisoners of conscience who have since been released.
The Human Rights House Network (HRHN) unites 90 independent human rights organizations in 18 Human Rights Houses in 13 countries in Eastern and Western Europe, Caucasus and the Balkans. HRHN’s aim is to protect, empower and support human rights defenders and their organizations locally and unite them in an international network of Human Rights Houses.
HRHN has worked extensively on human rights issues in Azerbaijan for more than a decade, in close cooperation with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It supported the establishment of a Human Rights House in Baku, which served as an important meeting place and resource center for human rights. In 2010, more than 6 000 human rights defenders, youth activists, independent journalists and lawyers used the facilities and the House became a focal point for promotion of human rights in Azerbaijan. In 2011, the authorities ordered the Human Rights House Azerbaijan to close and to cease all activities.