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  • Tightening the Screws; Azerbaijan’s Crackdown on Civil Society and Dissent

    Azerbaijan’s record on freedom of expression, assembly, and association has been on a
    steady decline for some years, but it has seen a dramatic deterioration since mid-2012.
    Since then the government has been engaged in a concerted effort to curtail opposition
    political activity, punish public allegations of corruption and other criticism of government
    practices, and exercise greater control over nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). It has
    done so by arresting and imprisoning dozens of political activists on bogus charges,
    adopting restrictive legislative amendments, consistently breaking up public
    demonstrations in the capital, and failing in its duty to investigate and punish those
    responsible for violent attacks and smear campaigns against critical journalists.
    The crackdown started in response to youth groups’ attempts to organize protests in Baku
    soon after the uprisings broke out in the Middle East and North Africa in early 2011. It
    intensified in mid-2012, apparently in anticipation of the October 2013 presidential
    This report, based on more than 100 interviews, documents the cases of 39 individuals
    detained, charged, convicted, and/or harassed in the 18 months from February 2012 to
    August 2013. The government of Azerbaijan has for many years used bogus charges to
    imprison some of its critics and has a long record of dispersing – often violently – peaceful
    public protests and arresting protesters. However, the sheer number of arrests, the
    adoption of harsher laws, and extensive government efforts to stop and prevent peaceful
    public protests indicate a new concerted government effort to curtail political and civic
    activism in the country.
    Arrest and Imprisonment
    Individuals arrested and imprisoned have included several high-ranking members of
    opposition political parties, government critics who frequently blog or have large
    followings on social media, and people who have been consistently involved in political
    protests in Azerbaijan, which have increased since the 2011 uprisings in the Middle East
    and North Africa.
    Activists in youth wings of political parties and the youth opposition movement NIDA have
    been particular targets. NIDA, which means “exclamation mark” in Azeri, was founded in
    2010 and campaigns for democratic reforms and the rule of law in Azerbaijan. From March
    7 to April 1, 2013, police arrested seven NIDA members, claiming they were involved in an
    alleged plan to instigate violence at a peaceful protest. Another NIDA board member and
    two other youth activists were arrested on misdemeanor charges and had their heads
    forcefully shaven while they served their brief jail terms. All are active Facebook and
    Twitter users who frequently posted criticism about alleged government corruption and
    human rights abuses.
    Others who have been arrested or imprisoned include at least six journalists, two human
    rights defenders who had worked on getting assistance to flood victims, one defender who
    documented abuse in police custody, and a lawyer who tried to secure adequate
    compensation for people forcibly evicted from their homes.
    Bogus Charges and Other Due Process Irregularities
    The authorities have used a range of misdemeanor and trumped-up criminal charges
    against these activists, including narcotics and weapons possession charges, hooliganism,
    incitement, and even treason. In many of the cases described in this report, Human Rights
    Watch documented numerous irregularities as well as due process and other violations
    that have marred the investigations and legal proceedings against the victims. Authorities
    have in many cases denied defendants’ access to lawyers of their own choosing whilst in
    detention. Courts have ordered defendants to be held on remand despite the absence of
    any evidence justifying the need for pretrial detention. In 17 cases documented here, the
    authorities did not adequately – if at all – investigate credible allegations of beatings,
    threats, and other abuses.
    In a vivid example of this, two days after the arrests of the first three NIDA members, nearly
    all Azerbaijani television channels, including the state channel and the public broadcaster,
    broadcast a police video of two of them allegedly confessing to a plan to use Molotov
    cocktails at a street protest. The televised statements had been made while the activists
    were in custody without access to their lawyers, and the statements gave the impression of
    being coached, raising fears that the activists were coerced or threatened in order to give
    false confessions. Yet the police did not effectively investigate allegations by several of the
    detained NIDA activists that they were beaten or otherwise ill-treated in custody.
    The Azerbaijani government also has a longstanding practice of pressing bogus drugs
    charges against its critics, and it has used this method in the current crackdown. From May
    2012 to May 2013 at least six government critics were arrested on charges of possession of
    narcotics. In these cases, the defendants’ lawyers were not present during the searches
    and could not access their clients for several days following their arrest. Furthermore,
    during interrogations several of the men were questioned primarily about their political
    activities rather than the allegations of possession of narcotics, further highlighting the
    political nature of their prosecution.
    Targeting of Journalists and Attacks on Freedom of Expression
    State antagonism toward independent and opposition media has been a serious problem
    in Azerbaijan for many years. In the past six years dozens of journalists have been
    prosecuted and imprisoned or fined on defamation and other charges. Police and
    sometimes unidentified assailants physically attacked journalists with impunity. In 2012
    the authorities released several journalists who had been wrongfully imprisoned, and
    there has been a sharp decline in criminal defamation suits pursued by the authorities.
    However, since January 2013 at least six more journalists have been handed prison
    sentences on spurious charges in apparent retaliation for doing their job of engaging in
    critical and investigative journalism. We documented four cases taking place in February,
    March, and April 2013 alone in which threats, smear campaigns, and violent attacks clearly
    sought to silence critical journalists and a writer.
    Since at least 2011 the Azerbaijani government has committed to decriminalize libel, a
    promise for which it has received not insignificant praise. However, in May 2013 the
    parliament of Azerbaijan expanded the definition of criminal slander and insult to
    specifically include content “publicly expressed in internet resources.”
    Targeting of NGOs
    The crackdown has also affected NGOs. Azerbaijan has a large and vibrant community of
    NGOs devoted to such public policy issues as human rights, corruption, democracy
    promotion, revenue transparency, rule of law, ethnic minorities, and religious freedom.
    Legislative amendments adopted in February 2013, however, make it impossible for
    unregistered groups to legally receive grants and donations. In recent years the authorities’
    refusal to register several human rights groups and their closure and harassment of
    several others demonstrates the government’s determination to interfere with NGOs in
    order to restrict controversial work or criticism of the government.
    The amendments also increased by fivefold fines for NGOs that receive funding from a
    donor without concluding a grant agreement and registering it with the Ministry of Justice.
    The amendments give the government greater latitude to exercise control over registered
    groups while at the same time significantly restricting the ability of unregistered groups to
    receive donations and grants. Human Rights Watch is concerned that the cumulative effect
    of these factors will be to marginalize the activities of organizations that are outspoken,
    challenge government policies, and/or work on controversial issues.
    Restrictions on Freedom of Assembly
    Another manifestation of the government’s crackdown has been severe limitations on
    freedom of assembly. The Baku municipal authorities have implemented a blanket ban on
    all opposition demonstrations in the city center since early 2006. The authorities have
    broken up unsanctioned ones – often with violence – and have arrested and imprisoned
    peaceful protestors, organizers, and participants. Our research shows that the
    misdemeanor trials of those charged for involvement in unsanctioned protests are
    perfunctory. In an effort to further limit the right to assembly, in November 2012 and May
    2013 parliament adopted amendments to laws increasing by more than hundredfold the
    fines for participating in and organizing unauthorized protests. Other amendments
    increased the maximum jail sentence for minor public order offenses often used to
    incarcerate protesters from 15 to 60 days.
    What Should be Done?
    The government of Azerbaijan should take immediate steps to ensure the release of
    political activists, journalists, human rights defenders, and other civil society activists
    held on politically motivated charges and end the use of trumped-up or spurious charges
    to prosecute government critics.
    The authorities should conduct prompt, thorough, impartial, and effective investigations to
    end impunity for violence and threats of violence against journalists. The investigations
    should be capable of leading to prosecutions of the assailants, as required under
    Azerbaijan’s international obligations.
    The government should also abolish criminal defamation laws, allow peaceful assemblies,
    and repeal legislative changes establishing harsher penalties for the participants and
    organizers of unsanctioned, peaceful protests.
    The government should also take immediate steps to end any undue interference with the
    freedom of the Azerbaijani people to form associations and revise the NGO law in line with
    the recommendations made by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, particularly
    ensuring that overly complicated registration requirements do not create undue obstacles
    to freedom of association.
    Under international law, and as a state party to both the European Convention on Human
    Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Azerbaijani
    government has specific legal obligations to protect the rights to freedom of expression,
    assembly, and association. International human rights law recognizes those freedoms as
    fundamental human rights, essential for both the effective functioning of a democratic
    society and the protection of individual dignity. Any limitations to those rights must be
    narrowly defined to serve a legitimate purpose and must be demonstrably necessary in a
    democratic society. Furthermore, the European Court of Human Rights has consistently
    made clear, including through four rulings against the government of Azerbaijan, that the
    right “to form a legal entity in order to act collectively in a field of mutual interest is one of
    the most important aspects of the right to freedom of association, without which that right
    would be deprived of any meaning.”
    For many years, and particularly since Azerbaijan became a member of the Council of
    Europe in 2001, it has been receiving international assistance from multilateral and
    bilateral donors, including the Council of Europe, the European Union, the Organization for
    Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the United States, to meet its commitments on
    freedom of expression, association, and assembly. While Azerbaijan’s international
    partners have been critical of Baku’s serious shortcomings in meeting its commitments,
    the criticism appears to have had little impact on these actors’ relationships with the
    government, perhaps because most actors prioritize the country’s geostrategic importance
    and hydrocarbon resources in their relations with it. Azerbaijan’s international partners
    should set clear benchmarks for improvements on human rights if the international
    community is to succeed in persuading Baku to respect its commitments under freedom of
    expression, association, and assembly and should be prepared to impose concrete policy
    consequences should those expectations not be met.

    Find this story at 9 September 2013

    © 2013 Human Rights Watch