BRUSSELS, Belgium (Human Rights Watch)—European Union officials should press President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan to free unjustly imprisoned political activists, journalists, and other government critics, Human Rights Watch said on Monday. EU officials should also urge Aliyev to end the crackdown on independent groups and allow them to operate without undue government interference.
Aliyev will be in Brussels on February 6 to inaugurate talks on a new partnership agreement between Azerbaijan and the EU to enhance political and economic ties between them. He is set to meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Council Donald Tusk, and other top EU officials.
“Time and time again, the EU has praised courageous human rights defenders, pledging to ‘throw the EU’s full weight behind them,’” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. “As the EU and Azerbaijan forge a new era of cooperation, now is the time to make good on those EU promises and not sweep Aliyev’s crackdown on dissent, and basic human rights under the red carpet.”
In a joint letter signed by 76 human rights groups worldwide and sent to top EU officials, the groups said the EU should use the meetings with Aliyev to secure concrete commitments for urgently needed rights reforms in Azerbaijan.
In recent years, the Azerbaijan government has made concerted efforts to restrict independent activism, critical journalism, and opposition political activity by imprisoning and harassing many activists, prominent human rights defenders, and journalists. Draconian laws and regulations impede the operation of independent groups and their ability to secure funding.
Following pressure by Azerbaijan’s international bilateral and multilateral partners, including the EU, in 2016, the Azerbaijani authorities released 17 human rights defenders, journalists, and political activists. They had been convicted on politically motivated charges, including narcotics and weapons possession, tax evasion, hooliganism, incitement, and even treason, and sentenced to long prison terms.