WASHINGTON—In response to the Government of Azerbaijan’s mounting harassment of Azerbaijani opposition members, activists, and journalists, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker issued a statement, in which they express concern over official Baku’s use of the global COVID-19 crises to suppress its population.
“During this pandemic, public health precautions do not excuse politically-motivated repression. We are deeply troubled by reports that the Government of Azerbaijan is further squeezing its people’s access to free expression, media, and information through arrests, fines, harassment, and possibly torture. Authorities should cease exploiting this global crisis to limit the speech of members of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan and other activists and reporters,” said Hastings and Wicker.
According to the Helsinki Commission chairs, In recent weeks, Azerbaijani authorities have detained, questioned, jailed, fined, and, in one case possibly tortured opposition members and journalists affiliated with the country’s main opposition party, the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA), and opposition-aligned media outlet Azadliq.
“The increasingly sharp criticism we are seeing of Baku, even by Aliyev’s once reliable allies, reflects the widening democracy gap, religious liberty gap, and peace gap between responsible Armenia, on the one hand, and reckless Azerbaijan on the other,” said Armenian National Committee of America’s Executive Director Aram Hamparian. “These stark differences in each of these areas simply make it untenable for even the most ardent apologists of Aliyev to sustain their false-parity narrative.”
Since the global spread of the novel coronavirus, the Azerbaijani Government has intermittently cut off internet and phone access to PFPA Chair Ali Karimli, preventing him from communicating with the outside world, including conducting interviews with media. Last week, a coalition of opposition parties accused the government of torturing PFPA activist Niyameddin Ahmedov while in custody. Other PFPA affiliated activists and writers, including Aqil Humbatov, Faiq Amirli, and Saadat Jahangir, have been detained for allegedly violating quarantine rules after speaking or reporting critically about the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
In March, Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev, referring to the opposition forces as the “fifth column,” said “ They are our enemies.” He went to to say that in the event of declaring a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 threat, “the isolation of representatives of the fifth column will become a historical necessity […] But we cannot allow the anti-Azerbaijani forces, the fifth column and national traitors to take advantage of this situation to commit various provocations. Let everyone know it.”