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 elections.
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.