BERLIN (HRW)—Azerbaijan falls far short of Council of Europe membership commitments, even as it assumes chairmanship of the organization, international advocacy organization Human Rights Watch says in a new extensive report on Azerbaijan’s plethora of past and current human rights abuses.
Azerbaijan will assume the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers on May 14, 2014, following years of relentless crackdown on criticism.
“The Council of Europe is the region’s foremost human rights body, but Azerbaijan’s chairmanship comes at a time when the government is blatantly flouting the organization’s core standards,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Council of Europe’s leadership should make clear to Azerbaijan that it needs to free unjustly imprisoned government critics and undertake far-reaching rights reform.”
In the past two years, Azerbaijani authorities have brought or threatened unfounded criminal charges against at least 38 political activists, journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders, most of whom are behind bars. In its September 2013 report “Tightening the Screws: Azerbaijan’s Crackdown on Civil Society and Dissent,” and in 35 follow-up interviews and other research since then, Human Rights Watch documented the authorities’ use of a range of criminal charges, including drug and weapons possession, incitement to violence, hooliganism, tax evasion, and even treason.
The circumstances of the criminal investigations and numerous violations in legal proceedings leave little doubt that the charges against these critics are bogus and intended to punish them for their independent activism and criticism of the authorities, Human Rights Watch said.
Among those imprisoned are eight youth political activists sentenced on May 6, 2014, to prison terms ranging from six to eight years; five young men whose trials are ongoing or pending who administered or blogged actively on Facebook pages that sharply criticized the government; Ilgar Mammadov, a prominent political analyst who intended to run for president in 2013 and Tofig Yagublu, deputy chair of the opposition political party Musavat, both of whom in March 2014 were sentenced to seven and five years, respectively, in prison; and Yadigar Sadigov,an adviser to Musavat,sentenced to six years in prison on January 14.
In April Rauf Mirgadirov, an outspoken reporter and commentator, was arrested in Baku’s international airport after he was unlawfully deported from Turkey and is facing treason charges. In December 2013, police arrested Anar Mammadli, chairman of Azerbaijan’s leading independent election monitoring group. He is on trial on trumped-up charges ranging from tax evasion to abuse of office.
Azerbaijani authorities severely limit freedom of assembly and use force to disperse any unsanctioned protests. In a recent example on May 6, 2014, police in Baku violently dispersed a peaceful crowd of about 200 who had gathered at the courthouse in support of the eight youth activists sentenced that day. At least 26 were arrested. Courts fined 12 of them and sentenced 5 to misdemeanor jail terms of 15 to 30 days. Among them was Kemale Benenyarli, whom police struck several times on the head as they questioned her. Benenyarli’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that Benenyarli has several bruises on her head and has had headaches and vomiting as a result. The Interior Ministry has denied the allegations.
When Azerbaijan became a Council of Europe member in 2001, one of the commitments to which it agreed was the release of all political prisoners and an end to silencing its critics by prosecuting them on politically motivated charges. A January 2013 resolution adopted by the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly highlighted the ongoing problem of politically motivated prosecutions, concluding, “The combination of the restrictive implementation of freedoms with unfair trials and the undue influence of the executive results in the systemic detention of people who may be considered prisoners of conscience.”
The resolution urges Baku to review the cases of human rights defenders, activists, and journalists who have been imprisoned on criminal charges and whose trials did not meet international standards. It also urges the authorities to “use all available legal tools to release those prisoners whose detention gives rise to justified doubts and legitimate concerns.”
Securing Azerbaijan’s compliance with its Council of Europe commitments, including the release of those held on politically motivated charges, should be a top priority for the organization and its member states, Human Rights Watch said.
“The result of the government’s arrest campaign is an ever-shrinking space for freedom of expression, assembly, and association in Azerbaijan,” Gogia said. “Instead of addressing this problem in the lead-up to its Council of Europe chairmanship, the government has only stepped up the repression.”
Politically Motivated Arrests and Convictions in Azerbaijan
The September 2013 Human Rights Watch report “Tightening the Screws: Azerbaijan’s Crackdown on Civil Society and Dissent” documented the arrest and imprisonment of several high-ranking members of opposition political parties, government critics with large followings on social media, and people who had frequently been involved in political protests. In the eight months since the report was published, 17 people whose cases the report documented and who were awaiting trial have been convicted and sentenced to prison; 2 have been released; and 10 more have been arrested and are behind bars pending criminal investigations or trials.
On May 6, 2014, the Baku Grave Crimes Court sentenced eight political youth activists to prison terms ranging from six to eight years on a series of bogus charges related to an alleged plan to instigate violence at a March 2013 protest that the authorities violently dispersed before it began. Seven of them – Bakhtiyar Guliyev, Shahin Novruzlu, Mahammad Azizov, Rashad Hasanov, Uzeyir Mammadli, Rashadat Akhundov, and Zaur Gurbanli – are from the youth opposition movement NIDA (“exclamation mark” in Azeri), which was founded in 2010 and campaigns for democratic reforms and the rule of law in Azerbaijan. The eighth, Ilkin Rustemzadeh, is a member of another youth movement, Azad Genchlik (Free Youth).
Human Rights Watch has documented the Azerbaijani authorities’ pattern of pressing spurious drug possession charges to lock up their critics. In recent months, five more Facebook and other social media activists have been arrested or convicted on illegal drug possession charges. None had access to a lawyer of their choosing during their initial interrogations or remand hearings, while at least three complained of ill-treatment in police custody.