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Journalists, bloggers and other activists face a variety of criminal charges which defy credibility.

Azerbaijan and the drawbacks of the spotlight

July 8th, 2015

By Leonard Lewis – Research Assistant

This past June, Azerbaijan celebrated the conclusion of the first European Games.  The inaugural competition saw 6000 athletes from 50 countries take part in competitions across 20 different sports, and was seen as representing “an opportunity for the countries of Europe to come together and celebrate the Olympic spirit of freedom and inclusiveness.”[1]  However, as the flame goes out over the games, the country remains under the spotlight of international community, albeit for very different reasons.

A Widespread Crackdown

In the wake of the Arab Spring, the conflict in Ukraine, and the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani government has taken drastic steps to secure national security and quash any dissenting discourse.[2]  The authorities have implemented measures designed to curtail opposing political activity and limit public criticism of the government, thereby imposing severe limits on freedom of expression, assembly, as well as association. For example, in early 2013, the authorities arrested seven members from the youth movement NIDA, all of whom had used social media to frequently criticise the government over alleged corruption and human rights abuses. Officials claimed that the activists were involved in an alleged plan to instigate violence at a peaceful protest.[3]

However, the past year has seen a particularly rampant – and sometimes brutal – crackdown on dissenting voices within Azerbaijan. Despite assuming the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in early 2014, civil society organisations, NGOs, human rights defenders and journalists in Azerbaijan have nevertheless been the target of increased authoritarianism, with at least 40 political activists, human rights defenders, journalists and others’ imprisoned on a range of charges which include drug possession, tax evasion, and treason.[4]

The government has focused its attention on the country’s foremost human rights figures, who had openly criticised the government’s human rights record, hoping to draw the attention of the international community and secure tangible human rights improvements in the country in the run up to the European games.[5]  Leyla Yunus, Director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, was arrested in July 2014 on charges of state treason and other crimes, only a few days after she called for a boycott of the Games, while her husband, the historian Arif Yunus, was arrested on similar charges.

Other prominent political prisoners include Khadija Ismayilova, an award-winning investigative journalist, who previously highlighted corruption and illegal business activity.  She was arrested on charges of inciting attempted suicide in a former colleague, and has remained in pre-trial detention since December 2014.  If convicted, she could face up to twelve years in jail[6].  Rasul Jafarov, chair of Azerbaijan’s Human Rights Club, an independent human rights group, was sentenced to six and a half years in prison by Baku’s Grave Crimes Court after being convicted of tax evasion, abuse of power, illegal business activities, and embezzlement.[7] Jafarov sought to raise awareness about politically motivated imprisonment and other human rights abuses in Azerbaijan in the period before the European Games, and had previously led rights campaigns, such the ‘Sing for Democracy’ campaign ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest held in Baku in May 2012[8].

Human Rights Watch have pointed out that, in many cases, the charges brought against such activists are of an extremely dubious nature, and are simply a way of silencing criticism.  It reports that ‘in more than a half dozen cases, police arrested activists on drug charges but questioned them almost exclusively about their activism’[9].  Furthermore, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, made a recommendation to the European Court of Human Rights in which he condemned Rasul Jafarov’s arrest and imprisonment, citing the case as part of ‘a clear pattern of repression in Azerbaijan against those expressing dissent or criticism of the authorities. This concerns particularly human rights defenders, but also journalists, bloggers and other activists, who may face a variety of criminal charges which defy credibility.’[10]

International Response

Until recently, calls from the international community for the Azerbaijani government to bring an immediate halt to the human rights abuses had been somewhat muted. One reason for this reluctance could perhaps be due to the Western world’s increasing dependence on Azerbaijan’s oil and gas supplies. At a time when ‘geopolitical tensions are heightening between Russia on the one hand, and the European Union and the United States on the other, the West has become increasingly dependent on the “alternative energy road map” of which Azerbaijan is the cornerstone’.[11]  It has also been argued that ‘oil and gas profits put Azerbaijan in a dominant position in their diplomatic relations with the European Union, and allow the regime to take an arrogant and threatening stand without fear of consequences’[12]. In December 2014, the Head of the Political and Social Affairs Department of the Azeri Presidential Administration, Ali Hasanov, accused Western nations of ‘developing biased analyses and pursuing a double standard policy towards Azerbaijan’[13], and stated that his country ‘did not fear “groundless pressures or threats from some international organisations or countries.”’[14]

However, as the government welcomed the spotlight on the European Games, which it hoped would help to promote its image worldwide, the event instead had the inadvertent effect of further illuminating the country’s geopolitical situation.  For example, in April 2015, the board of Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) – which is ‘an international effort to promote better governance of resource-rich countries’[15] – announced that it had downgraded Azerbaijan’s standing from a ‘compliant’ country to a ‘candidate’ country due to the need for further work ‘to ensure that civil society in Azerbaijan can participate in the EITI in a meaningful way.’[16]  This is the first time EITI has taken such a step against any country, and Azerbaijan risks suspension from the EITI if the government does not take “corrective action” within a year, despite being a founding member of the initiative and holding a seat on the EITI international board [17]. The validation report stated, “there is a need to ensure that a diversity of voices within civil society are allowed to be expressed, within and beyond the MSG (a group comprised of government, business, and civil society representatives that oversees the implementation of EITI within a country multi-stakeholder group).”[18]

Scrutiny over the Azerbaijan government’s authoritarian regime further intensified after the denial of entry to certain journalists and international human rights organizations ahead of the European Games. Against this backdrop, the international community has begun to intensify its condemnation of the country’s geopolitical climate.

During his opening statement to the to the 29th Session of the Human Rights Council, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, commented on the situation in Azerbaijan, stating that he was ‘concerned about reported violations of the right to a fair trial and excessive resort to pre-trial detention.’[19]  He called on the authorities to release ‘on humanitarian grounds those who are in fragile and rapidly deteriorating health, and to pardon and drop charges against those who have been deprived of their liberty simply for exercising their rights.’[20]

On 22 June 2015, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) adopted a new resolution on “the functioning of democratic institutions in Azerbaijan”[21].  The Assembly acknowledged the authorities concerns ‘over the security and the stability of the country due to alleged threats from abroad, in particular the alleged risks to Azerbaijan from the situation in some other European countries’[22].  However, it condemned the crackdown on human rights defenders and called for end to what it described as “the systemic harassment of those critical of the government.”[23] The Assembly also urged the authorities to review strict laws governing the functioning of NGOs in order to facilitate an adequate balance between the rights of association and freedom of expression, which are both guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.

The next day, a number of states supported a statement delivered by Ireland on the situation in Azerbaijan.  The joint statement raised concerns about the ‘shrinking space for civil society in the country, imprisonment of independent voices, in particular human rights defenders’[24], and called for their immediate and unconditional release. The joint statement issued a timely reminder of the country’s obligations as a member state of the Council of Europe, and its duty to abide by judgments of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Concluding Remarks

While political events over the last decade have undoubtedly increased Azerbaijan’s standing in the international community, the country’s own actions in undermining civil liberties and fundamental freedoms at home are arguably stifling the significant efforts it has made to promote its image.  However, if Azerbaijan’s international partners want the government to respect international standards, they must not shy away from calling the country to account when these standards are clearly not being met. The international community as a whole must continue to call upon the Azerbaijani government to create and maintain a diplomatic and civil society in which rights are respected, and dissenting discourse is not met with severe reprisals.

[1] “Azerbaijani activists must be freed before the Baku 2015 Games” – UN expert, 2 June 2015, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=16029&LangID=E ), accessed 27 June 2015

[2] ‘Azerbaijan: Crackdown on human rights defenders intensifies as Baku Games approach, International Fact-Finding Mission Report’, The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, April 2015 (https://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/report_azerbaijan_english_final.pdf) accessed on 27 June 2015

[3] Azerbaijan: Crackdown on Civil Society, 2 September 2013, Human Rights Watch (http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/09/02/azerbaijan-crackdown-civil-society) accessed on 27 June 2013

[4] Germany Should Bring Azerbaijan Down to Earth, 30 August 2014, Human Rights Watch (http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/08/30/germany-should-bring-azerbaijan-down-earth) accessed on 27 June 2015

[5] Baku European Games : don’t forget the ongoing repression in Azerbaïdjan, 15 May 2015 (https://www.fidh.org/International-Federation-for-Human-Rights/eastern-europe-central-asia/azerbaijan/baku-european-games-don-t-forget-the-ongoing-repression-in) accessed on 27 June 2015

[6] Arrested Azerbaijani journalist calls charges ‘dirty and black’ tactics, 9 December 2014 (http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/12/09/uk-azerbaijan-journalist-statement-idUKKBN0JN21120141209) accessed on 4 July 2015

[7] Azerbaijan: Rights Defender Convicted, 16 April 2015, Human Rights Watch (http://www.hrw.org/news/2015/04/16/azerbaijan-rights-defender-convicted), accessed on 28 June 2015

[8] Ibid

[9] The parallel realities of President Ilham Aliyev, 10 July 2014, Open Democracy, (https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/giorgi-gogia/parallel-realities-of-president-ilham-aliyev) accessed on 27 June 2015

[10] Op cit. no 7

[11] Op cit no 8

[12] Op cit no 8

[13] Op cit no 8

[14] Op cit no 8

[15] Azerbaijan: Group Orders Rights-Linked Review, 15 October 2014, Human Rights Watch (Azerbaijan: Group Orders Rights-Linked Review) accessed on 27 June 2015

[16] Azerbaijan downgraded to candidate country, 15 April 2015, Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (https://eiti.org/news/azerbaijan-downgraded-candidate-country)

[17] Reporters’ Guide 2015: European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan, April 2015 (http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/related_material/Azerbaijan_Reporter’s_Guide.pdf) accessed on 28 June 2015

[18] Ibid

[19] Opening Statement to the 29th Session of the Human Rights Council by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=16074&LangID=E#sthash.g1J1lNoQ.dpuf) accessed on 2 July 2015

[20] Ibid

[21] PACE condemns ‘human rights crackdown’ in Azerbaijan, calls for end to repression of government critics, 24 June 2015, Parliamentary Assembly (http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/News/News-View-EN.asp?newsid=5680&lang=2&cat=8) accessed on 2 July 2015

[22] The functioning of democratic institutions in Azerbaijan, Resolution 2062 (2015) (Provisional version) (http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/X2H-Xref-ViewPDF.asp?FileID=21953&lang=en) accessed on 2 July 2015

[23] Ibid

[24] UN puts a spotlight on Azerbaijan’s human rights crisis, 24 June 2015, FIDH (https://www.fidh.org/International-Federation-for-Human-Rights/impacts/un-puts-a-spotlight-on-azerbaijan-s-human-rights-crisis) accessed on 27 June 2015


About Leonard Lewis

Leonard is a Research Assistant in the Global Governance research Division. His research interests include counter-terrorism, human rights and international criminal law.