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