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Political Vendetta against Azerbaijan Human Rights Defenders

23.02.2015

 
Ketevan Gvedashvili, humanrightshouse.org  

Dozens of journalists, civil activists and CSO leaders have been arrested in Azerbaijan the past few years. All of them openly criticized the Government of Azerbaijan. The accusations against them are almost identical – illegal possession of drugs and weapon, hooliganism, high treason, evasion from the payment of taxes, fabrication of documents, illegal entrepreneurship, abuse of professional power, etc. International organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, evaluated their detention as political revenge.

“The Azerbaijani government escalated repression against its critics, marking a dramatic deterioration in its already poor human rights record. The authorities convicted or imprisoned at least 33 human rights defenders, political and civil activists, journalists, and bloggers on politically motivated charges,” says the World Report 2015 of Human Rights Watch.

The arrested human rights defenders used available platforms to reach local and international societies – journalists used media sources, social activists – social networks, human rights defenders conducted different campaigns in  cooperation with the international institutions Council of Europe, Human Rights Commissioner and rapporteurs of the Parliamentary Assembly. Intigam Aliyev, Leyla Yanus and Rasul Jafarov were the most active in this field. They often spoke about political prisoners. 

In June of 2014, when President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev was making a speech in the PACE, Emin Huseynov, Rasul Jafarov and Intigam Aliyev held meetings in Strasbourg and criticized the report on human rights presented by the Azerbaijan government.

Smear campaigns against them, their consecutive detentions and equal accusations, reinforces the doubt that the accusations against them are politically motivated. International organizations believe the government uses prosecutor’s office as a political tool. Ongoing trials of Rasul Jafarov and Intigam Aliyev’s cases raise questions about the state prosecutors, because prosecutor’s office has not yet presented reasonable evidence against the detainees. 

Nor the judiciary is an exception in this trend. The court has convicted many human rights defenders, civil activists and journalists. The chairman of the nongovernmental organization Election Monitoring and Democracy Study Center, Anar Mamadli, was sentenced to 5.5 years imprisonment in 2013. Journalist Pariz Hashimli was sentenced to 8-year imprisonment, social media activists Abdul Abilov, Omar Mamadov and Elsever Murseli were arrested in 2014 and sentenced to 5 and 5.5 years imprisonment. This is just a short list of all the people, which were judged the past few years. When prosecutor’s office fails to present well-grounded evidence to prove the guiltiness of the detainees, and when the court upholds all solicitations of the prosecutor’s office, both the independence of the judiciary system and the fairness of its judgments, are questionable. 

Photos of the former and current presidents of Azerbaijan, father and son Aliyevs, on the wall of the Baku Court on Grave Crimes demonstrate that it is difficult to ignore the influence of the government, more precisely of the President, over the judiciary system in the country.

Problems in the field of human rights protection have always been urgent in Azerbaijan. International partners often speak about this topic. The situation has become particularly tense since 2013, which was followed by intensive arrests. The government started a crack down on CSOs and independent groups with legislative mechanisms.

In 2009 Law about Nongovernmental Organizations was amended, saying that foreign NGOs shall be registered in the country based on an agreement with the state. In 2011 some new criterias appeared in this law to register the contracts. The Venice Commission assessed the legislative amendments as negative. After Azerbaijani Human Rights House organized a meeting during the 2011 PACE Conference, the organization received an order from the Minister of Justice to stop the activities in the country.

Although legislative amendments of 2009-2011 had a formal purpose, they prepared a strong basis for the 2013 amendments. The law significantly restricted the functioning of the CSOs and independent, unregistered groups. In accordance to the legislative amendments, initially registration of the organizations and then of their grants became necessary. The Ministry of Justice is authorized to make a final decision about it, which successfully uses its authorities against CSOs. Since 2014 the Ministry of Justice has not registered any grants allocated by foreign organizations. 

Legislative amendments signed by the President in 2014 intensified the oppression on nongovernmental organizations through the government. It allowed the government to ban activities of local and international organizations.

As a result, bank accounts of about 10 nongovernmental organizations were frozen and criminal liabilities were launched against their leaders. Many NGOs had to stop their activities. A so called black list of the critical journalists, politicians and human rights defenders was created. Either travel ban was imposed on them or they would face obstacles when traveling abroad. Those who have not managed to flee the country, tries to find safe shelter within Azerbaijan. The rest continue working in different European states. 

Several incidents triggered these processes. One of them is the 2015 Summer Olympic Games in Baku. The government had a very unpleasant experience during the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. The human rights defenders took advantage of the contest to attract attention, and launched the campaign Sing for Democracy. Rasul Jafarov and Elena Yanus were the organizers. It soon turned into a larger campaign called Art for Democracy. Azerbaijani human rights defenders managed to attract the attention of journalists that had arrived in Baku to report about the contest and informed the world about human rights violations in the country. 

“When NGO representatives were giving interviews, they tried to protest the human rights situation and then prepare reportages about it. Ten people used to gather and then hundred police officers attacked and arrested them, and of course media reported about it,” said Human Rights Watch representative in South Caucasus and senior researcher Giorgi Gogia , which personally witnessed the facts. He also believes that the ongoing events in Ukraine became one of the indicators of the situation in Azerbaijan, and doubts that Azerbaijani authority got concerned with the Maidan demonstrations and tried to prevent the threat. Gogia said that the Azerbaijani government was always criticized by civil society but the situation has never escalated so much before. 

The inactivity of the international community also encouraged the oppression and detentions in Azerbaijan. Giorgi Gogia believes the World leaders did not criticize these facts though it could have had an influence on the Azerbaijan government. 

“The response of the international society to all these incidents was expressions of concern, that was their maximum,” Gogia said and explains the situation with the conflict in Ukraine and energo-problems of Europe. 

“We call on the US Government and Council of Europe to openly call on the Azerbaijani government to release human rights defenders from prison and to stop repression. Otherwise, if Azerbaijan continues its policy, it will impact mutual relations with the international society,” Giorgi Gogia told Liberali.

Civil activists and human rights defenders were arrested in Azerbaijan in the period of its chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers at the Council of Europe. It might be a paradox that on the one hand ongoing events in the country have nothing to do with the democracy, but on the other hand the Government of Azerbaijan wastes a lot of money to create an image of being a democratic country. 

We hope that the international society will manage to somehow influence the activities of the government. However, the will of world leaders is the most important, in the sense that they  use real leverages of influence instead of making oral statements. Moreover, the majority of them detect signs of political revenge in the detentions in Azerbaijan. 

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