Human Rights in Azerbaijan
Updated 5 April 2016
Azerbaijan is an authoritarian country, where civil and political rights are severely restricted and violated. Political power is concentrated in the hands of the President, Ilham Aliyev, and the ruling party directly affiliated to him. The flawed presidential elections held in 2013 saw Aliyev appointed for a third term. Most notable human rights abuses in Azerbaijan revolve around violations of freedom of expression, assembly, and association. The number of arrests of human rights activists, who speak out about human rights violations and/or government scrutiny, drastically increased in 2014, during Azerbaijan’s six-month chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. Until recent pardoning and release on parole, over a dozen of human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists, and bloggers were imprison on a range of spurious criminal charges, ranging from drugs and weapons possession, to tax evasion, hooliganism, and even treason.
The crackdown on civil society reached its pinnacle in 2014 when several prominent human rights defenders were arrested and kept in pre-trial detention. The crackdown has prompted dozens of others to flee the country or go into hiding. The authorities have raided the offices of major local and international NGOs, freezing their bank accounts. Authorities have also initiated tax inspections and criminal investigations against activists and the organisations they work for. These repressions have severely affected the capacity of civil society to carry out their work by creating an atmosphere of fear. The sheer number of arrests, the adoption of tougher laws, and government policies directly aimed at preventing peaceful public protests have demonstrated the intense efforts of the Azerbaijani authorities to curtail political and civic activism in the country. Media is mostly state-controlled and its freedom to operate is severely restricted.
Other grave human rights issues include a corrupt judicial system, frequent cases of arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture, ill-treatment of prisoners and discrimination against sexual and ethnic minorities and persons with disabilities.
The Azerbaijani government is incredibly sensitive about how its external image is portrayed to the outside world. Authorities have invested vast sums of money in a wide array of lobbying networks in the EU and the US. Its principal aim is to persuade the international community that it is a young emerging democracy and that lack of freedom of expression or the incarceration of its political prisoners is not worthy of special attention.
Emanating out of such intense lobbying efforts, Azerbaijan succeeded in its bid to host the inaugural edition of the European Games in 2015, an international multi-sport event for athletes representing the National Olympic Committees (NOCs) of Europe, and Formula 1 Grand Prix of Europe in June 2016. Baku was awarded to host the international sports events despite the widespread crackdown on civil society organisations and human rights defenders. In 2012 Azerbaijan hosted Eurovision Song Contest that was seen controversial by local and international human rights groups who pointed that Azerbaijan used it as a PR event to show the country as prosperous and democratic.
The Situation for Human Rights Defenders in Azerbaijan
Human rights defenders in Azerbaijan face severe difficulties and security risks when investigating and exposing human rights violations committed or sanctioned by the state or for criticising the current regime. Independent journalists, bloggers and human rights activists face threats of arrest, harassment and physical assaults in their daily work. The repressions reached new heights in 2014, when several of the leaders of prominent Azerbaijani human rights organisations were arrested.
The regime has imprisoned top civil society figures who had on paper appeared to be relatively protected as a result of international publicity: Leyla Yunus, a prominent human rights defender and campaigner for reconciliation between Azerbaijan and Armenia; Intigam Aliyev, a human rights lawyer specialising in political rights and freedoms; Rasul Jafarov from the Sing for Democracy Initiative created during the Eurovision Song Contest in Baku in 2012 and the head of Human Rights Club (all three arrested in August 2014), and Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent investigative journalist who worked with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (arrested in December 2014). All received length prison sentences between 6 and 7.5 years.
Prior to their arrest three of them had worked on the compilation of a list of political prisoners incarcerated in Azerbaijan’s prison system. They had also raised international awareness regarding the on-going crackdown against civil society in the country.
The lawyers representing these human rights defenders have been regularly harassed or removed from working on the cases. Some lawyers were even called as witnesses, meaning that they were prevented represent their clients due to impartiality issues. Others have been removed from cases without any reasons communicated to them.
Several prominent civil society figures, such as, the Director of the Women’s Crisis Centre. Matanat Azizova, the International Media Support Manager Gulnara Akhundova, and the President of the Center for National and International Studies Leyla Aliyeva, have been compelled to leave the country after facing threats of arrest on trumped up criminal charges. Emin Huseynov, Director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, has been living at the Swiss embassy in Baku after going into hiding in August 2014 to avoid pre-trial detention on accusations of tax evasion and engaging “in illegal business over unregistered grant contracts”.
Civil rights organisations have also been targeted by the authorities and obstructed from carrying out their work. For example, Reporters’ Freedom and Safety had their premises searched by police in August 2014, while Azerbaijan Human Rights House remains closed following the Ministry of Justice decision to suspend its registration back in 2011.
In November-December 2015 Arif Yunus and Leyla Yunus were released on the grounds of deteriorating health situation and their sentences were converted to suspended ones. In March 2016 the president pardoned 15 political prisoners, including Rauf Mirkardirov and Rasul Jafarov. The same month the court released Intigam Aliev on parole.
These are largely seen as political moves by the Azerbaijnai authorities to be used in improving relationship with the West and negotiating a loan from the World in the situation of sharply devalued Azerbaijani currency and the fall of oil prices.
Ten Rights In Focus
The right to life and physical integrity
The death penalty was abolished in Azerbaijan in 1998. The last execution took place in 1992. However, torture and ill-treatment continues with impunity in government run detention facilities. Despite the adoption of legislation providing for the ethical treatment of detainees, inhumane treatment in prison intensified in 2012 as the country prepared to host the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. Azerbaijan has undertaken some reform measures to strengthen the penal system. Some new prisons have been built and a general upgrading of infrastructure has been completed. A committee for review of prison conditions has been established, and the Azerbaijani State Human Rights Ombudsman has conducted visits to prisons and detention centers. However, poor nutrition, inadequate health care, infectious diseases and suicides are still common throughout the prison system. Local human rights organisations have reported a high number of abuses and deaths in the military.
The right to liberty and security of person
Arbitrary detentions are widespread and have increased over recent years. Many critics of the country’s deteriorating human rights situation have been put behind bars on fabricated charges – sometimes the accusations were changed while the detainees were awaiting trial. Members of opposition parties, human rights activists, youth workers, as well as journalists have been affected the most by the clampdown on civil society.
The list of political prisoners in Azerbaijan compiled by the Working Group led by Leyla Yunus and Rasul Jafarov and last updated on August 10, 2014, outlines cases of 98 journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, civic, political and religious activists who are currently in detention or imprisoned for politically motivated reasons. Among them are many who were arrested for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association.
The right to a fair trial and an effective remedy
The legal system in Azerbaijan is considered inadequate and is not independent of executive influences. The judiciary also suffers from corruption, inefficiencies and understaffing. As a result there is no equality before the law. International observers have expressed serious concerns regarding the fairness of criminal and civil proceedings, especially those, which involve human rights defenders and journalists. They usually face a whole range of difficulties, such as obtaining legal representation, accessing public hearings and the right to a fair trial.
The Azerbaijani authorities generally acknowledge problems within the justice system and have taken a number of steps in recent years to try and reform it. A legal academy has been established. Recruitment and training of new judges is ongoing, and the number of judges who have graduated has also increased. Judicial infrastructure, courtrooms and prisons have been renovated and upgraded. Despite all of these recent improvements – especially the addition of judges who are better selected and qualified, and trained in international human rights standards – the actual independence of the judiciary is still far from being secured.
The right to respect for private and family life
Government surveillance is a major concern in the country. The Arab Spring and social media revolutions in the Middle East have led the regime to tighten its grip when it comes to monitoring the use of social media and new technologies. Blanket surveillance of Azerbaijan’s mobile-phone networks is carried out with the assistance from the telecommunications giant TeliaSonera, over a third of which is owned by the Swedish state. As investigative reporters have exposed, sources from within the company describe how in Azerbaijan, TeliaSonera’s subsidiary, Azercell, installed devices known internally as “black boxes,” which allowed for real-time blanket monitoring of all mobile traffic without court orders or warrants. Azercell has also hosted government security personnel on its company premises.
Dissidents are especially exposed to surveillance from the authorities. In 2011 a journalist was secretly filmed having sex, and the video was put online after she had published controversial articles about the president’s family.
The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion
Azerbaijan is a secular state where Islam is overwhelmingly the dominant religion. In 2010, all religious communities were forced to re-register with the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations by 1 January 2010, or face possible closure. The state denied registration to Baku’s Baptist Church, its Catholic Parish, Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Religious groups and their members have been prevented from exercising their rights to freedom of religion. Throughout 2010 Police have raided many unregistered religious communities, their services have been banned, while participants have been detained, prosecuted and fined for spreading their religious beliefs.
The situation in the Nakhichevan exclave is even worse than in the rest of the country. It maintains a de facto ban on exercising freedom of religion for those who are Shia Muslims outside state control, Sunni Muslims and non-Muslims (such as Seventh-Day Adventists, Hare Krishna devotees, Russian Orthodox etc.). Under a Decree ordered in August 2014, a new Multiculturalism and Religious Affairs Committee was established with several branches throughout Nakhichevan. Its principal task is to promote religion “in the right direction”, but in reality is charged with controlling public rituals and counteracting “religious sects”.
The right to the freedom of expression
Freedom of expression in Azerbaijan is severely restricted. Almost all of the cases of political persecutions in Azerbaijan include violations of freedom of expression.
Defamation remains a criminal offense punishable by high fines and imprisonment – the respective amendments to the law imposing harsh punishments and extending criminal defamation provisions to online content were adopted by parliament in May 2013. Journalists and bloggers are constantly threatened; many of them are accused and have been subsequently arrested on fabricated charges for criticising the authorities.
Over the past decade, there have been hundreds of assaults on journalists, including the murders of Monitor magazine editor-in-chief Elmar Huseynov in 2005; Sanat newspaper journalist Rafig Tagi in 2011, and journalist and chairman of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, Rasim Aliyev. These murders remain unsolved, as do almost all other cases of attacks against journalists.
To increase pressure on independent journalists and bloggers, NGOs defending freedom of opinion and expression have also been targeted and attacked, for example the Media Rights Institute and the Institute for Reporter’s Freedom and Safety in 2014.
Internet and social media remained for a time the only outlet for channeling anti-government sentiment. However, the government has repeatedly blocked some websites that feature opposition viewpoints and has intimidated the online community especially bloggers and netizens critical of the regime as well as carrying out extensive surveillance of social media. The Ministry of Justice has repeatedly refused registration to the Media Monitoring Institute, which has attempted to register six times since 2009. Foreign-language FM media broadcasting as well as foreign-language TV-shows and films are banned through a law enacted in May 2012.
The right to freedom of assembly and association
The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is consistently violated. In early November 2012 the Azerbaijani government introduced amendments to the law raising the punishment on peaceful protests. According to the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan, anyone involved in a “legally banned demonstrations” can be imprisoned. Officials do not normally authorise any demonstrations in central Baku, and the police quickly and often violently disperse all unauthorised protests. Police detained more than 50 activists in March 2012 alone after pro-democracy protests, inspired by the Arab Spring. The courts tried dozens in late-night trials and closed sessions sentencing activists for up to 10 days in prison. In an unauthorised rally held in April 2012, police physically obstructed protesters from gathering and detained over 200 people, including public figures, journalists, and opposition activists. 14 of them were sentenced in unfair trials receiving up to three years in prison. The situation worsened after the Eurovision when the authorities began to relentlessly crack down on demonstrations even in front of the international community.
Legal amendments to the Law on Grants, the Law on Non-Governmental Organizations, and the Code of Administrative Offences, entered into force in 2014, just several months before the Azerbaijani Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. The raft of laws tightens registration requirements for local civil society actors and branches of foreign organisations. The overall effect of these laws has led unregistered NGOs being unable to receive grants and requires that all grants must be registered with the Ministry of Justice, which effectively means that if the NGO is not registered it is impossible for it to get any grant. All recipients of unregistered grants can face criminal prosecutions.
The rights to protection against hate speech and war propaganda
Anti-Armenian propaganda and hate speech against Armenians frequently appears in the state media. Another common form of hate speech revolves around LGBT issues. Politicians and public figures in Azerbaijan often make degrading and discriminatory statements about homosexuality. Allegations of LGBT sexual orientation have also been used to discredit political opponents and journalists.
The right to political rights
Political power is largely concentrated in the hands of the president. The interference of authorities into the electoral process is pervasive. A large number of registered parties do not purport to political pluralism as many act as supporting parties to the incumbent government. Actual opposition parties are not represented in the parliament. Prominent political families wield strong power, and the system is characterised by corruption and bias. While there were 50 registered political parties in the country, the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party exclusively dominates the political landscape. On April 2012 the parliament passed amendments to the law on political parties that undermine political pluralism by establishing state funding for political parties, strangling restrictions on political party financing and the introduction of new rules for disclosure of private contributions. Aforementioned changes made to laws governing freedom of assembly and NGOs restrict the opposition’s capacity to campaign in unauthorised rallies.
Since the early 1990s elections have not fulfilled any of the requirements when it comes to being “fair and free”. In October 2013, Ilham Aliyev, the son of the previous president Heydar Aliyev, won a third term after the presidential elections, which were characterised by widespread electoral fraud. The major opposition parties boycotted 2015 parliamentary elections due to what they called massive violations by the government with regards to the electoral process. The winner of the most seats was the New Azerbaijan Party, the ruling party in Azerbaijan.
The right to protection against discrimination
Among groups most frequently exposed to discrimination are internally displaced people (IDPs), women, persons with disabilities, ethnic and sexual minorities. Internally displaced people are at risk of being socially excluded and are characterised by higher poverty rates than the local population. They are affected by higher unemployment rates, in particular displaced women. In Azerbaijan, IDPs account for more than 6% of the total population. IDPs are frequently settled in remote rural areas, which also limits access to the labour market and so they are often dependent on government assistance. National minorities principally people of Armenian decent which number between 20,000 – 30,000, are discriminated when it comes to employment, housing and provision of social services.
Azerbaijan decriminalised homosexuality in 2001 to coincide with its entry into the Council of Europe. However, the country has not ratified Protocol 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which specifically refers to discrimination based on sexual orientation, nor has the country accepted the 2007 UN declaration on sexual orientation and gender identity. Azerbaijan has no laws that protect LGBT individuals from discrimination and bias-motivated violence. Homophobia and transphobia remain life threatening, because the society in Azerbaijan remains intensely biased and conservative towards LGBT people. Police brutality against the LGBT community is common, but the crimes are often not reported because of fear of harassment, reprisals and social stigma.
The role of Civil Rights Defenders in Azerbaijan
Civil Rights Defenders is raising awareness about the atrocious human rights record and the situation of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan, as well as providing emergency assistance to local human defenders. In 2012 when the country hosted Eurovision Song Contest, we teamed up with Swedish contestant and winner Loreen and activists from the Sing For Democracy campaign which resulted in reaching to thousands of people, politicians and decision makers in Sweden and the rest of Europe. Currently, we are directing most of our effort at the release of the remaining imprisoned human rights defenders.