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Human Rights Developments

Increased international attention to Azerbaijan’s abysmal human rights record failed to yield concrete reforms in 1998. President Heydar Aliyev issued a number of decrees ordering improvements in human rights conditions during the year. However, these were merely window-dressing. The measures could not substitute for the government’s dismal record and its lags in adopting urgently needed structural reform of the courts, police, and procuracy, nor did they succeed in obscuring the government’s dismal human rights record.

Legislation governing the October 11 presidential elections and the future conduct of local elections provoked sharp criticism from opposition parties and a series of public demonstrations in Baku and other major cities. Senior government officials claimed that the electoral legislation adopted in July met international standards, but in fact the government had failed to adopt reforms recommended by international organizations specializing in electoral reform, such as the National Democratic Institute. The government’s unwillingness to allow more equitable representation of opposition parties on the Central Electoral Commission was one of several issues that caused major opposition parties to boycott the presidential elections. OSCE and Council of Europe election monitors said after the vote that they had found numerous irregularities, and concluded that the elections did not meet internationalstandards.

Although the parliament adopted legislation in February abolishing the death penalty, developments during the year pointed to the hollowness of the Azerbaijani government’s commitment to improved practices in other areas. There was, for example, continued physical abuse by the Ministry of Internal Affairs staff. A November 1997 Human Rights Watch investigation found that physical abuse and torture by the police was rampant, and systematized in facilities such as the Baku City Police station, where many under suspicion of politically motivated crimes have been detained. Throughout the year, Human Rights Watch received numerous credible allegations that police continued to abuse detainees physically and to intimidate, harass, and even kidnap the family members of suspects. Family members charged that police and officials of other security forces conducted arbitrary searches without warrants, threatened and intimidated them, and in some cases arrested and then physically abused them in custody. Especially alarming was the climate of impunity in which the police acted; statistics provided by the Ministry of Internal Affairs showed that only two police officers had been prosecuted for physical abuse in Baku in 1997.

Restrictions on public demonstrations also continued. On May 8, Baku authorities arbitrarily detained and held for periods of five to ten days approximately one third of the roughly 150 people who were peacefully protesting the highly controversial draft law on presidential elections, which was then under consideration in parliament. On August 15, opposition activists reported that approximately 300 people had been detained during election rallies in Baku and other cities, while Minister of Internal Affairs Ramil Usubov acknowledged that 106 had been detained for resisting the police or disorderly conduct.

On August 6, the president signed a decree lifting pre-publication censorship and instructing the parliament to adopt laws to ensure freedom of the print media. Yet nine days later police detained seven journalists who were trying to cover the August 15 rallies; some of them were reportedly beaten in custody. In February, police seized issues of the Baku-based Monitor magazine. Journalists from the Monitor received a letter in April from the minister of internal affairs demanding that they refute an article published in that issue regarding torture in Azerbaijan. In July, a court found the magazine guilty of highly dubious libel charges that resulted in a fine, forcing its closure. And an April decree adopted by the Cabinet of Ministers further tightened restrictions on the broadcast media by creating new onerous registration requirements for all independent television stations in Azerbaijan.

In February, President Aliyev issued a decree instructing his government to cooperate with international and local human rights organizations. Yet throughout the spring, smear campaigns and harassment by senior Azerbaijani officials, including Minister of Justice Sudaba Gasanova and Deputy Procurator General Isa Najafov continued, as in past years, against local activists.





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