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Azerbaijan: Presidential Elections 2003

Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, October 13, 2003


On October 15, 2003, citizens of Azerbaijan will vote for a new president, following an election campaign that from the beginning was heavily manipulated by the government to favor Prime Minister Ilham Aliev, son of President Heidar Aliev. The government ensured that election commissions would be stacked to favor Aliev, and banned nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from monitoring the vote. As the election drew nearer, government officials openly sided with Ilham Aliev, obstructed opposition rallies, and sought to limit participation in them. Police have beaten and arbitrarily detained hundreds of opposition activists, including a seventy-three-year-old woman.

Human Rights Watch documented many of these abuses in the lead-up to election day. Beginning September 30, we traveled to five districts in Azerbaijan and interviewed political activists, government officials, journalists, and others about the current situation. The present briefing paper is based on the findings of this research. While the campaigning climate has improved slightly with the arrival of international monitors, particularly those sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the U.S. Embassy, government-created obstacles remain a daily reality for the opposition. Opposition activists have continued to campaign and organize despite the intimidation, harassment, and manipulation. For the ordinary voter, however, the impact of the government-sponsored campaign against the opposition is less clear. Without a doubt, many ordinary voters have been intimidated by the pre-election violence, and the government has successfully prevented the opposition from getting its message across to much of the nation.

Government repression of opposition politicians and supporters violates Azerbaijan's obligations as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.1 Abuses related to the election campaign include violation of the rights to freedom of assembly (article 21), expression (article 19), and to participate in public affairs (article 25). Those participating in election rallies and journalists covering them have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention (article 9), beatings and other mistreatment (article 7), and lack of access to counsel (article 14), among other due process violations. The government's actions also contravene its commitments under the OSCE's Copenhagen document, which elaborates standards for the conduct of free and fair elections, and its obligations as a member state of the Council of Europe.

The direct result of the government-sponsored campaign against the opposition is that the October 15 presidential elections in Azerbaijan will be of questionable legitimacy, regardless of the fairness and transparency of the election-day procedures. Too much manipulation, too many arrests, and too many beatings have taken place already for the presidential elections to be considered free and fair.

These violations of fundamental rights did not occur in a vacuum. Azerbaijan has a sorry history of election fraud. The OSCE called the most recent national vote, the 2000 parliamentary elections, a "crash course in the different methodologies of manipulation." Current violations of electoral rights stem from the government's long-term efforts to minimize dissent and limit pluralism and its poor record on accountability for abuse.

By limiting political competition in violation of international law, the government has polarized the political landscape. As they face the prospect of yet another illegitimate election, some opposition party leaders have voiced their intent to launch massive protests in the aftermath of yet more election fraud. One opposition leader told Human Rights Watch, "If we see Ilham wins the election in a democratic way, we will shake his hand and take our seats in the opposition. But if he falsifies the election, we will struggle against him as is our right." A second opposition leader sounded equally determined: "If the vote is falsified, we will consider this a coup d'etat and we will struggle against them. They won't stop us by breaking our noses."

1 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976. Azerbaijan ratified the Covenant in 1992.

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October 13, 2003