Azerbaijan tightens screws on civil society

AZERBAIJAN LEYLA YUNISAzerbaijan presents a bleak picture, when it comes to democracy and human rights, writes RFE/RL’s Robert Coalson.

The European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based think tank, recently issued a five-page report detailing what it calls “the most serious and brutal crackdown on civil society in Azerbaijan ever” since Baku assumed the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in May.

From the conviction and eight-year prison sentence handed down to journalist and activist Parviz Hashimli on May 15 to the brutal beating of journalist Ilgar Nasibov by unknown assailants on August 21, it is a depressing litany of arrests, detentions, searches, and court hearings of bloggers, journalists, and prominent activists.

Squeezing Out Independent Media

Mehman Aliyev, the head of the Turan information agency, says that the crackdown is particularly severe because Azerbaijani society was already strictly repressed. “There were more media outlets in the past and when one or two was hit, it did not seem very dramatic,” he says..

The most recent list of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, published in June under the supervision of activist Leyla Yunus (above) - who was arrested herself in July — includes 98 names.

Blaming ‘Foreign Forces’

On September 5, Azerbaijani security forces raided the Baku office of IREX, a U.S.-funded nongovernmental organization that promotes democratic reforms around the globe. The organization’s bank accounts have been frozen, as have those of other international NGOs including Transparency International, Oxfam, and the National Democratic Institute.

At the same time, “The New York Times” on September 6 published an investigative report detailing how Baku uses its oil money to buy influence in Washington and “reinforce public opinion in the United States” that Azerbaijan is “an important security partner.”….

Geopolitical Anxiety

“The government is frightened most by recent developments around the world, especially in the post-Soviet space,” says Baku-based political analyst Azer Gasimli. “Today the fate of Azerbaijan, to some extent, is being resolved on the battlefields of Ukraine. The West is preoccupied with the events in Ukraine and until that [conflict] is resolved, the U.S. and the West won’t get strict with Azerbaijan.”

RTWT

Azerbaijan makes a mockery of Council of Europe

azerbaijan dissidents

Leyla Yunus – Rasul Jafarov – Intiqam Aliyev – Anar Mammadli

While Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine have intensified throughout the summer, authorities in Azerbaijan have likewise continued to challenge the fundamental norms of post-Cold War Europe, the European Stability Initiative notes. Russia has made a mockery of numerous European conventions and obligations. Azerbaijan has made a mockery of the Council of Europe and its role in defending the European Convention on Human Rights.

In May 2014, Azerbaijan assumed the chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s council of ministers. Expectations were low, for many good reasons. And yet, what happened next was worse than imagined. During the summer, hiding behind the war in Ukraine and its own recently attained chairmanship of the CoE, Azerbaijani authorities unleashed an unprecedented wave of repression, targeting opposition politicians, journalists, civil society representatives, and human rights defenders. See here:

Over the last year, many of the most prominent human rights defenders in Azerbaijan came together to produce a list. They knew what they were doing was dangerous. They also felt that it had to be done – it is a list of political prisoners, which exposes the discrepancy between Azerbaijan’s human rights obligations and the systematic violation of these commitments that is occurring today.

A working group led by Leyla Yunus and Rasul Jafarov met a number of times leading up to this summer, and applied the definition of “political prisoner” that was adopted by the Council of Europe in 2012, to nearly one hundred Azerbaijanis jailed for political reasons:

The List of 98 Political Prisoners – in English

The list also revealed just how nervous and aggressive the authorities have become. Even before an English translation of the list could be published, Leyla Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, and prominent lawyer and human rights defender Intiqam Aliyev were themselves arrested.

And in a bitter irony that reveals so much about Azerbaijan today, they are now included in the very list they helped create. Next to Anar Mammadli, who had been advising the Council of Europe rapporteur on political prisoners in 2012, and who had already been sentenced to more than five years in jail earlier in 2014.

Check out the new ESI briefing – The jails of Azerbaijan – A chronology of recent repression by the chairman of the Council of Europe.

RTWT

U.S. condemns beating of Azerbaijan journalist: Yunuses apart in jail

azerb yunusesLeyla and Arif Yunus met as young history students in the late 1970s, at a party hosted by one of their professors at Baku State University, Daisy Sindelar writes for RFE/RL:

Arif became a respected author and historian; Leyla, a prominent rights activist and outspoken government critic. Both shared a passionate conviction of the need for reconciliation between Azerbaijan and neighbouring Armenia…..

Now, however, the couple is experiencing the first real separation of their 36-year marriage – as prisoners facing charges of fraud and treason that supporters say are punishment for their long years of activism and Baku-Yerevan peace efforts.

Leyla, 58, and Arif, 59, were arrested on 30 July and accused of spying for the Armenian secret services and using foreign aid money to recruit Azerbaijani citizens for espionage. Human Rights Watch has dismissed the charges as “completely bogus.” RTWT

azerb Ilgar NasibovThe brutal attack on journalist Ilgar Nasibov (right) in Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan is an outrage, and Azerbaijan’s authorities should ensure a prompt, effective, and impartial investigation, according to Front Line Defenders, Human Rights House Foundation, Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Rafto Foundation for Human Rights, People in Need, Human Rights Watch, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, International Media Support, Article 19, and Reporters Without Borders:

The Azerbaijani authorities should ensure that the investigation into the assault is effective, thorough, and impartial, the organizations said. It should examine as a potential motive that the attack was connected to Nasibov’s work as a journalist and human rights defender. The investigation should be capable of identifying and bringing to justice those responsible for this assault. The authorities should ensure that Nasibov gets immediate access to medical treatment as recommended by medical specialists.

The US State Department condemned the beating of Nasibov, Director of the NGO Democracy Support Center:

We understand that in this case the police responded immediately, and the prosecutor’s office has initiated an investigation. We support a swift, full, and transparent investigation and prompt disclosure of whether criminal charges will be brought against the perpetrators. We urge that those responsible be brought to justice, and call on the Azerbaijani government to take immediate steps to protect fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly, and association.

UN human rights experts have condemned Azerbaijan’s increased prosecution of human rights activists and urged Baku to “reverse the trend of repression”.

UN calls on Azerbaijan to release activists and ‘reverse trend of repression’

azerb yunusUN human rights experts have condemned Azerbaijan’s increased prosecution of human rights activists and urged Baku to “reverse the trend of repression,” RFE/RL reports:

In a statement issued by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the experts said they are “appalled” by several incidents in which Azerbaijani officials use surveillance and interrogation to arrest and sentence rights activists “on the basis of trumped-up charges.”

They said the “criminalization of rights activists must stop” and that those who have been unjustly detained be “immediately freed,” including Leyla Yunus (above), Arif Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, and Intigam Aliyev.

Independent civil society groups this week released a list of political prisoners that meet the criteria adopted by the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly. The list, containing as many as 98 names, was compiled under the leadership of Leyla Yunus and Rasul Jafarov.

“As an irony of fate, and as a confirmation that the problem of political prisoners in Azerbaijan is enormous, unsolved and underestimated,” notes one observer, ‘Yunus and Jafarov now find themselves behind bars.”

Yunus, arguably one of the fiercest critics of Azerbaijan’s poor rights record, and her husband Arif Yunus, have been accused of treason, spying for Armenia, and illegal business activities, among other financial charges, the Guardian reports:

The list is based on the definition of political prisoner offered by the Council of Europe, which aims to promote human rights on the continent. The organisation’s secretary general Thorbjorn Jagland said he had spoken to Azeri president Iham Aliyev, and told him of his “deep concerns about the arrests of prominent human rights defenders in recent days”. Despite its rights record, Azerbaijan currently presides over the organisation’s committee of ministers….. Azeri investigative journalist Khadiya Ismayil told The Guardian that Aliyev has now been added as the last entry…..

Laws regulating NGOs have been tightened this year, making it more difficult to register and run them. At the time, then-EU foreign policy chief expressed concern that the move was aimed at “restricting the environment for an independent and critical civil society, especially in the field of human rights and democracy”.

International human rights organization Civil Rights Defenders also called on the authorities to immediately release Azerbaijani journalists and human rights advocates.

“The crackdown on the civil society in Azerbaijan has once again come to demonstrate how Aliyev’s regime continues to use authoritarian methods of governance, despite the fact that the country chairs the Council of Europe,” stated Executive Director of Civil Rights Defenders Robert Hardh.

Azerbaijan’s ‘relentless crackdown’ on critics

AZERBAIJAN LEYLA YUNISAzerbaijan’s arrest of a leading human rights defender and government critic, Rasul Jafarov, reflects the government’s concerted efforts to silence its critics, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately secure Jafarov’s release from pretrial custody and drop all politically motivated charges against him. They should also end their ongoing harassment against independent organizations.

“Rasul Jafarov is one of the most outspoken critics of politically motivated prosecution in Azerbaijan and of its ever-deteriorating rights record,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “By arresting Jafarov, the authorities are sending an unambiguous message to activists to stop their human rights advocacy.”

The Grave Crimes Investigation Unit of the General Prosecutor’s Office arrested Jafarov on August 2, 2014. He is the founder and chair of Human Rights Club, an independent human rights group. Together with several partner organizations, Jafarov had been compiling a comprehensive list of victims of politically motivated arrests in Azerbaijan and pressing for their release. He planned to submit the list to the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, which in June had appointed a special rapporteur on politically motivated prosecutions in Azerbaijan. Human Rights Club had spearheaded several critical campaigns against politically motivated prosecutions in Azerbaijan, including the “Sing for Democracy” campaign in the lead up to the Eurovision Song Contest in May 2012.

On July 30, 2014, Azerbaijani authorities arrested Leyla Yunus (above), another human rights defender who was working on the list with Jafarov, on multiple charges, including treason.

Jafarov’s arrest takes place amid a comprehensive crackdown on independent organizations and political activists. In the past two years, Azerbaijani authorities have brought or threatened unfounded criminal charges against dozens of political activists, journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders, most of whom are behind bars. The crackdown continued even as, on May 14, Azerbaijan took over the rotating chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, Europe’s foremost human rights body.

“The government fears human rights work that exposes abuses, and its response is to abuse the law and push organizations to its margins,” Denber said. “Groups that are outspoken and challenge government policies, or work on controversial issues, are now extremely vulnerable to criminal prosecution.”

RTWT