Azerbaijan cracks down – while chairing Council of Europe


azerbalyeva“We are the last of the Mohicans,” says Leila Alieva (left).* “First the government weakened the opposition, then targeted independent media, and now us – the NGOs.”

Her research institute, the Centre for National and International Studies in Azerbaijan. is one of dozens of pro-democracy non-governmental organisations under investigation by the Azeri authorities, the BBC’s Rayhan Demytrie reports: 

And the crackdown is taking place as oil-rich Azerbaijan chairs Europe’s leading pro-democracy institution, the Council of Europe. In most cases the authorities have frozen bank accounts or launched tax inspections, forcing NGOs that received foreign grants to suspend projects.

Other organisations include Transparency International, Irex, National Endowment for Democracy and Oxfam.

Draft amendments to limit funding of independent groups under Azerbaijan’s already harsh laws would make it nearly impossible for them to operate, Human Rights Watch said today:

These moves come as a prominent international coalition, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), is to decide at a board meeting in Naypyidaw, Burma on October 14 and 15, 2014, what action to take on Azerbaijan’s membership in response to its intensifying crackdown. EITI is an international coalition to encourage better governance of resource-rich countries by fostering open public debate about how oil, gas, and mining revenues are used. EITI rules for candidates and participating countries require respect for fundamental freedoms…. For the past year the government of oil-rich Azerbaijan has been impeding the activities of independent groups, flouting its commitments as an EITI member.

“EITI’s leadership should suspend Azerbaijan and make clear what needs to change before it will consider lifting the suspension,” said Lisa Misol, senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Azerbaijani government’s latest move to crush independent groups confirms that it has no regard for its human rights obligations or its international transparency commitments.”



Two prominent human rights activists, Leyla Yunus (right) and Rasul Jafarov, were arrested in late July after they compiled a list of Azerbaijan’s political prisoners.

 Human Rights Watch described the charges as “completely bogus”.

“These are the towering figures of civil society, who we felt were more or less untouchable. But apparently no-one is untouchable in Azerbaijan. At this stage all critical civil society is pretty much exterminated,” says Georgi Gogia, the group’s senior researcher in the Caucasus.

With Azerbaijan chairing the Council of Europe, questions have been raised about its ability to respect the 47-nation organisation’s founding principles, the BBC’s Demytrie adds.

“It’s shocking that the chairman is basically a dictatorship using its chairmanship period this summer to arrest literally every three days all the critical minds that defend the very value of the institution,” says Gerald Knauss, who heads the Berlin-based European Stability Initiative (ESI).

*A former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.


Time for sanctions on Azerbaijan


azerb yunusesFor years, Belarus’s leader Alexander Lukashenka has been called Europe’s last dictator, although Vladimir Putin is giving Lukashenka a run for his money, amidst the worst crackdown on human rights in Russia in decades. And now we might also add another leader in the region to the list: President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, David J. Kramer and Richard Kauzlarich write for the American Interest:

Aliyev’s government now holds nearly 100 political prisoners, roughly double the number in Belarus and Russia combined. Beyond the raw numbers, Azerbaijan’s authorities are also getting more thuggish in their handling of critics, journalists, and opposition figures—as well as Westerners.

Statements of concern and criticism from Western and international officials and organizations have fallen on deaf ears in Baku. Even President Obama’s recent criticism of Azerbaijan’s treatment of NGOs made no impact. To the contrary, there are now credible reports that the Azerbaijani authorities plan to arrest investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova when she returns to Baku from a trip abroad. The best way to try to reverse this disturbing trend is to impose penalties on the Aliyev regime for its outrageous treatment of its own people.

Among the most egregious abuses are the July 30 arrests of civil society activists Leyla and Arif Yunus (above), accused of spying for Armenian secret services—implausible charges linked to the decades-old dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. On August 20, journalist Ilgar Nasibov was savagely beaten into a state of unconsciousness while he was in the office of a rights organization in the Naxcivan region. Several leading opposition figures—including Ilgar Mamedov of the opposition movement REAL and Tofig Yakublu of Musavat—languish in prison on unsubstantiated charges.

The local offices of several American and international non-governmental organizations have been raided and/or their bank accounts frozen, and their employees harassed including IREX, the National Democratic Institute, Transparency International, and Oxfam. Several grantees of the National Endowment for Democracy have been arrested, and numerous others have had their accounts frozen.


Azerbaijan’s longstanding repression of independent voices has reached crisis levels, even as it nears the end of its six-month chairmanship of the Council of Europe, says Human Rights Watch. The situation puts to the test the council’s standing as Europe’s foremost human rights body.

“The Azerbaijani government’s systematic crackdown on human rights defenders and other perceived government critics shows sheer contempt for its commitments to the Council of Europe,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “To let the relentless repression go unanswered threatens the very credibility of the institution.”


Rights groups probe Azerbaijani crackdown




Under pressure from human rights activists, a natural resources industry watchdog is reviewing whether to suspend Azerbaijan’s membership over Baku’s crackdown on civil society groups, Transitions Online reports”

The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) has dispatched a delegation to Baku to investigate the government’s recent moves against human rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations, according to the Financial Times.  A decision to suspend Azerbaijan would be a blow to the government, an early supporter of the decade-old initiative. EITI represents a coalition of governments, corporations, and civic groups that promotes open accountability of revenues from petroleum and other natural resources. …

Human Rights Watch has pressed the EITI to suspend Azerbaijan’s membership. “Azerbaijan’s government is squeezing activist groups to the breaking point while claiming to international audiences that it’s a leader on open civic participation and good governance,” Lisa Misol, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last month. “Azerbaijan is blatantly violating EITI rules, and EITI cannot afford to be complicit in this hypocrisy.” 


Freedom House

Freedom House

Three UN human rights representatives have also condemned Baku’s ham-handed treatment of activists and efforts to shut down critical groups. “We are appalled by the increasing incidents of surveillance, interrogation, arrest, sentencing on the basis of trumped-up charges, assets-freezing, and ban on travel of the activists in Azerbaijan,” UN special rapporteurs Michel Forst, Maina Kiai (right), and David Kaye said in a statement. …RTWT

You are cordially invited to a reception with special guest Maina Kiai, executive director of InformAction and recipient of Freedom House’s 2014 Freedom Award. He will give brief remarks about key challenges to human rights in Africa and globally. 

Maina Kiai has campaigned for human rights in Kenya and internationally for the last 20 years. He founded the unofficial Kenya Human Rights Commission and later served as Chairman of Kenya’s National Human Rights Commission, earning a national reputation for his courageous and effective advocacy against official corruption and impunity following the violence that convulsed Kenya in 2008. Mr. Kiai has directed Amnesty International’s Africa Program, led the International Council on Human Rights Policy, and currently serves as UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of association and assembly.


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.”


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.