For the next six months, the Azerbaijani government will chair an institution tasked with developing and implementing respect for fundamental human rights—the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers. Its assumption of this role, however, coincides with a continuous and intensifying crackdown on independent activists. Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani government goes to great lengths to influence international institutions – including the Council of Europe and whitewash its image abroad.
Among other responsibilities starting tomorrow, Azerbaijan will lead the Council’s work developing organizational treaties—like the seminal European Convention of Human Rights—and overseeing the implementation of international obligations by member states, a function it shares with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). This gives the Azerbaijani government an important role in promoting respect for a broad spectrum of human rights that it often fails to ensure at home.
If past is prologue, there is considerable reason to worry. In March, the European Parliament’s ethics committee found that a number of parliamentarians (MEPs) had accepted—and failed to properly disclose—trips to Azerbaijan that were reportedly funded by the Azerbaijani government or groups who refuse to disclose their funding. Sponsored trips are nothing new for policymakers and the reasons for the disclosure rules are self-evident. But, the purpose of this trip was to monitor the country’s October 2013 presidential elections, wherein Ilham Aliyev—the son of the country’s first post-Soviet President—won his third term with an astounding 85%. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the MEPs who went on the free trips joined a statement with representatives from the PACE embracing the presidential elections as “free and fair.” Experts with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), however, documented “significant problems” over the course of their six-week mission and ultimately found that the election fell “well short” of international standards.
Despite statements by US and European officials echoing their concern about the election, in-depth reports highlighting the structural problems with short-term parliamentary visits, and blistering criticism from NGOs, the damage was done—the plight of imprisoned democrats and journalists before, during, and after the presidential election nearly forgotten.
Enriched by immense oil and gas reserves, Azerbaijan has been accused of using its wealth to craft an image of a modern, tolerant state, engaging in so-called “caviar diplomacy” to weaken international criticism of its human rights record and buy supporters in capitals around the world. It does not stop there; the government and its officials have been accused of trying to buy international competitions also. A European Broadcasting Union investigation found Azerbaijan had unfairly tried to influence the outcome of the 2013 Eurovision Contest by buying votes from jurors and members of the public. Furthermore, Azerbaijan’s participation in the 2012 London Olympics came under scrutiny after BBC reported that Azerbaijan had bribed a boxing official in an effort to “buy” two gold boxing medals in the upcoming games. More eyebrows were raised after a boxing official appeared to unfairly favor an Azerbaijani boxer during the Olympics; he was removed from the games.
With so many claims of international corruption, one can only imagine just how bad it must be politically inside the country. According to civil society, it is bad.
In sharp contrast with the glitzy image to which the Azerbaijani government aspires is the far bleaker portrait painted by journalists, activists, and concerned citizens. It is a picture of a repressive state plagued by widespread corruption and intolerance to individual expression, especially political dissent. Freedom House classifies Azerbaijan as “not free” and international human rights groups have observed that the Azerbaijani government has grown increasingly authoritarian in recent years as it places more restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association—and targets government critics and journalists with arbitrary arrest.
In an effort to whitewash growing oppression within the country, Azerbaijan has attempted to influence members of the PACE and MEPs in order to dilute their assessments of the country’s democratic process. Last year, Azerbaijan successfully blocked a PACE rapporteur from entering the country to conduct research for a report he was preparing on Azerbaijani political prisoners. The report strongly criticized the Azerbaijani government’s imprisonment of regime critics. Azerbaijan’s delegation reportedly engaged in an aggressive lobbying effort that successfully defeated adoption of the report when it was brought up for a vote in PACE.
Despite the best efforts of Azerbaijani officials to present the country as a democracy, the government’s escalating crackdown on dissent is beyond reconciling. Today, there are reported to be well over a hundred political prisoners in Azerbaijan—including human rights advocates, journalists, members of the political opposition, and youth activists, who are imprisoned on fabricated criminal charges, such as drug and arms possession, hooliganism, extortion, and treason. Those targeted by the government frequently face mistreatment in police custody and politicized judiciaries that convict them with little evidence in trials that fail to meet international standards.
One such wrongfully imprisoned government critic is Hilal Mammadov, an Azerbaijani minority rights activist and newspaper editor. He was imprisoned in 2012, charged with a bizarre cocktail of crimes that included drug violations, treason, and inciting hatred, and then sentenced to five years in prison. Despite widespread international criticism of such charges, just last week the government sentenced seven members of the N!DA pro-democracy youth movement to between six and eight years on similar charges. This time the charges included possessing drugs and weapons and organizing riots after the group held a peaceful demonstration to protest alleged abuses within the military. Authorities violently disbanded the peaceful protest and rounded up organizers.
The arrests and mistreatment of peaceful activists are not compatible with the modern, harmonious image that Azerbaijan wants for itself but is uninterested in actually doing the work to earn. It’s time for the international community—including parliamentarians from democratic countries—to stand with the victims of human rights abuses in Azerbaijan. Until the government releases each and every prisoner of conscience, we must not strain to overlook widespread rights violations there—even if that means forgoing lavish trips and other comforts of caviar diplomacy.