In a June 10, 1998 letter to you, Human Rights Watch recommended that no further progress be made in consideration of Azerbaijan's membership application to the Council of Europe until such time as the government achieved measurable progress in adopting urgently needed reform. We continue to be deeply alarmed by developments throughout the year, and believe Azerbaijan's admission to the Council of Europe would be highly premature due to the government's failure to comply with many of its human rights obligations.

In a June 10, 1998 letter to you, Human Rights Watch recommended that no further progress be made in consideration of Azerbaijan's membership application to the Council of Europe until such time as the government achieved measurable progress in adopting urgently needed reform. We continue to be deeply alarmed by developments throughout the year, and believe Azerbaijan's admission to the Council of Europe would be highly premature due to the government's failure to comply with many of its human rights obligations. We are especially distressed that the accession review period, which should have prompted substantial reforms, has in fact witnessed a deterioration in human rights practices in many important areas.

Significantly, the 1998 presidential election campaign was characterized by attempts to stifle the legal exercise of electoral rights, by police brutality against public demonstrators and physical abuse in custody after their detention, and by harassment of and attempts to stifle the print and broadcast media. Following the October 11 presidential elections, the police continued to physically abuse demonstrators, and government officials turned to the courts -- which enjoy no independence from the executive -- to squelch freedom of the press through a wave of criminal and civil defamation suits against journalists and newspapers. We note that many of the protests and public demonstrations were in part related to the widespread irregularities that occurred during the elections, which, according to election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe, did not meet international standards.

Throughout the year the Ministry of Justice's violations of freedom of association and the arbitrary application of registration laws governing nongovernmental organizations and other associations hindered the development of civil society. Moreover, delays in implementing judicial reform and reports of widespread corruption in the criminal justice system raise concerns that the government is not committed to the establishment of a legal system that fairly and impartially adjudicates disputes and administers justice.

The past year has seen several signs that the Azerbaijani government is concerned about human rights issues generally. A February 1998 presidential decree, for example, urged greater awareness about human rights among government officials, called for proposals to strengthen free speech protections, and called for greater cooperation with nongovernmental organizations. Later presidential decrees effected a moratorium on the death penalty and repealed prepublication censorship. President Heydar Aliyev has spoken out publicly against using "illegal means" against suspects in police custody. We welcome these decrees, but believe they can be no substitute for marked improvements in practice and a demonstrated commitment to institutional reform. Sadly, as this letter and our previous correspondence demonstrates, these benchmarks have not been met.

Human Rights Watch representatives will be in Strasbourg during the January Parliamentary Assembly session and will be contacting you separately to arrange a time to discuss these findings in greater detail.

The following is a summary of our concerns in Azerbaijan throughout the past year:

Physical Abuse and Torture in Police Custody
Police routinely beat and physically abuse detainees in Azerbaijan, and sometimes torture them systematically, according to an in-depth Human Rights Watch investigation into allegations of torture in police custody in November 1997. Our investigation found that physical abuse is widespread and routine for both those detained under suspicion of criminal and political or security offenses in Azerbaijan. We found cases of physical abuse so severe that they resulted in the deaths of detainees while in police custody or in months of hospitalization subsequent to detention. We base those findings on numerous credible allegations of systematized torture in the Baku City Police Department, in the holding facility of the Ministry of Internal Affairs' Directorate to Combat Organized Crime, and in local police precincts in Baku and cities outside the capital, including Ganja, Lenkoran, and Kazakh.

We found particularly troubling reports that police detain and physically abuse individuals, later demanding money from their families and relations for their release. For example, Baku resident Hussein Zulfugarov told Human Rights Watch that his family lacked the resources to pay a bribe demanded by police officials at the Yasamalski district police station in sufficient time to secure the release of his son, thirty-year-old Samir Zulfugarov, before he died in police custody from the severe beatings he was subjected to. Zulfugarov stated that on July 27, 1997, four members of the Yasamalski district police station detained his son in the front yard of his home on suspicion of drug trafficking. Zulfugarov reported that after he visited his son at the police station and saw his extensive bruises and an open wound, three police officers from the Yasamalski district police station demanded a bribe of $2,500 in cash for his son's release. When the police officials visited his home later on July 28, Zulfugarov told them that he had not yet been able to raise the sum; the police officers are alleged to have replied that due to his tardiness in paying the bribe, the amount required would be increased to $5,000. Zulfugarov was not released from police custody, and a death certificate shown to Human Rights Watch investigators cited the cause of Samir Zulfugarov's death on August 1, 1997 as "traumatic shock," accompanied by internal bleeding and a broken rib.

More recently, investigations in May 1998 and November 1998 found numerous credible allegations that police officials beat individuals during and after detention at the opposition rallies leading up to and following the October presidential elections. Against a backdrop of widespread torture and police abuse, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Internal Affairs and the procurator general's office have shown an inadequate commitment to investigating credible allegations of torture and physical abuse in custody. Statistics kindly provided by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, for example, show that only two police officials were prosecuted for physical abuse in Baku in 1997.

Restrictions on the Free Exercise of Electoral Rights
The OSCE election observer mission's final report on Azerbaijan's October presidential elections concluded that the elections did not meet international standards. The report noted instances of ballot stuffing, blatant irregularities in the counting procedure, irregularities in voter lists, skewed coverage by the official media, and the lack of a clear dividing line between incumbent President Heydar Aliyev's campaign and state affairs.

We view legislation adopted in May 1998 and finalized by the parliament in July that governed the October presidential elections as jeopardizing the future free exercise of electoral rights in Azerbaijan. The Law on Presidential Elections stipulates that half of the members of the Central Electoral Commission, which exercises oversight over election proceedings and results, will be appointed by the president, while the remaining half will be appointed by parliament. Since the November 1995 parliamentary elections -- in which OSCE election monitors found substantial irregularities -- created a parliament that is overwhelmingly composed of pro-government members, Human Rights Watch is concerned that the Central Electoral Commission will not function as an unbiased body, but rather may continue to interfere with the free exercise of electoral rights.

Members appointed to the Central Election Commission this year can be expected to serve for at least three more years, and are likely to oversee future municipal elections in 1999 and parliamentary elections in 2000. President Aliyev has refused to amend the law in line with suggestions made by the OSCE in its final election monitoring report and by organizations such as the National Democratic Institute. This has stalled the process of long-term democratic institution building because it has prevented the creation of the Central Election Commission as an impartial body that enjoys broad public confidence.

On May 8, 1998, local authorities detained and held for periods of five to ten days approximately one-third of the roughly 150 people who staged a demonstration in Baku to protest the highly controversial draft law on presidential elections, which was then under consideration in parliament. Human Rights Watch collected eyewitness accounts of the rally, which indicated that marchers demonstrated peacefully. Eyewitness accounts of a September 12, 1998, demonstration in Baku indicated that police violently dispersed demonstrators, and testimony from those detained under the administrative penalties code during the rally indicated that the police subjected them to beatings and physical abuse after their detentions while in custody of the main Baku city police station, the Sabailski administrative detention center, and the Surhani and Hatainski district police stations. There were also reports of police brutality during an October 9 demonstration, as well as against those who demonstrated on November 7 against irregularities associated with elections.

Restrictions on Freedom of the Press
Human Rights Watch welcomed President Aliyev's August 6, 1998 decree instructing the government to lift pre-publication censorship and requesting parliament to amend legislation that has hindered freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. However, since the signing of the decree the government has demonstrated a lack of good faith in guaranteeing freedom of the press in Azerbaijan, physically abusing journalists covering events and filing a wave of spurious libel suits against newspapers.

Immediately following the decree we were discouraged by credible reports that at least seven journalists were detained by police in Baku and Ganja on August 15, during pre-election rallies. Following the elections, two journalists were attacked during clashes between police and demonstrators on November 7, four journalists were reportedly injured by police on November 16 as they protested against a libel suit brought against their newspaper, and three journalists were alleged to have been severely beaten on November 25 for reporting on a picket in front of the presidential palace in Baku.

Azerbaijani government officials have turned to the government-controlled courts to stifle the press, filing a series of libel suits. On July 7, Monitor magazine was found guilty of "insulting the Azerbaijani nation" in an article discussing issues related to Azerbaijani national identity in a suit brought by three Baku State University professors, who sued the magazine "on behalf of the Azerbaijani nation." The magazine was fined and has not resumed operation. The court ruling followed the seizure of the magazine from Baku newsstands by officials of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in February, and a letter to Monitor journalists in April from the minister of internal affairs demanding that they repudiate an article they had published regarding the practice of torture in Azerbaijan.

On November 10, the government-dominated parliament called for the use of criminal and civil defamation suits against newspapers that published remarks by opposition leaders critical of the president and other government officials. The ensuing wave of criminal and civil prosecutions against opposition newspapers is clearly intended to result in fines that will bankrupt them. On December 14, a Baku court fined Azadliq, a prominent daily, requiring it to pay a fine equivalent to $130,000 for insulting fourteen public officials and relatives of the president by publishing a story alleging that they owned real estate overseas. On December 15, a Baku district court fined Azadliq and Yeni Musavat each the equivalent of $39,000 for having insulted the honor and dignity of President Aliyev by publishing former President Abulfaz Elchibey's allegations that President Aliyev played a role in the creation of the Kurdistan Workers' Party. The Baku city court judge who on December 14 had imposed the fine on Azadliq was reported to have applied to the procurator general to begin criminal proceedings for slander against Azadliq editor Gunduz Tairli. Other newspapers that face prosecution are Mukhalifet, Hurriyyet, and Ulus.

An April 1998 decree adopted by the Cabinet of Ministers also tightened media restrictions by laying down new requirements for the registration of all independent television stations in Azerbaijan. The decree stipulates that independent broadcasters must obtain a certificate from state-owned television in order to operate. Television stations must also obtain approval from a frequency commission, whose members include the ministers of internal affairs and national security. By mid-December, no independent television station in Azerbaijan that had applied had received a licence under the new procedures.

Stifling Civil Society through Violations of Freedom of Association
The Ministry of Justice arbitrarily refuses to register nongovernmental organizations, including human rights organizations, political parties, religious organizations, lawyers' associations, and others to impede their activities. Human rights organizations told Human Rights Watch that Ministry of Justice officials routinely ignore registration applications or make onerous requests for documentation not called for in the 1992 registration law. The OSCE international election observers final report on the October election noted that at the time of the elections Halk Azadliq, Vahdat, the Azerbaijan Democratic Party, the National Democratic Party and Cakdash Turan political parties had all had their requests for registration turned down by the Ministry of Justice on questionable grounds.

In April, a law governing grants to nongovernmental organizations was adopted by the Azerbaijani parliament. Although the law applies to all nongovernmental organizations in Azerbaijan, during parliamentary consideration the government failed to publish the law or otherwise make it available to the affected organizations, despite repeated requests to members of parliament and to the president's office. Human Rights Watch is distressed that the parliament and the president's office thus carefully excluded the community of nongovernmental groups from the process of formulating and studying legislation that affects them so vitally.

Delays in Legal Reforms
Reform of Azerbaijan's legal system has lagged, and the judiciary remains heavily dominated by the executive. Although a law on the judiciary was adopted in 1997 to reform the court system, it has not yet come into force. The Azerbaijani courts therefore remain a de facto branch of the executive; their budgets, as the Council of Europe noted in a November 1997 report, are controlled by the president. Judges of lower courts are appointed by the president, and higher court judges are not tenured for life but subject to reappointment by the president. The procuracy continues to retain oversight over the courts through its power to initiate the overturning of court decisions on the grounds that the judge's decision is a violation of law or groundless. This exercise of their oversight authority (called nadzor in Russian) ensures that the courts are firmly subordinated to the executive. As a result, there is no impartial forum for peacefully resolving disputes or impartially administering justice in Azerbaijan, and hence a widespread lack of public confidence and mistrust of the judicial system.

The government of Azerbaijan should, as minimum steps prior to an invitation to accede to the Council of Europe:

  • Investigate and prosecute allegations of torture in police custody and make its findings public. Such public reporting should include, inter alia, the charges brought against police officers and the length of sentences they receive;
  • Insure routine and regular access to all places of detention, including those under the jurisdictions of the Ministries of Interior, Justice, National Security, and Defense for international humanitarian organizations in full accordance with their rules of conduct;
  • Review all cases of those convicted who state that their confessions and the testimony of those testifying against them were obtained under torture, and make the findings of such investigations public;
  • Adopt electoral reforms outlined in the OSCE international electoral mission final report;
  • End arbitrary denials by the Ministry of Justice of registration requests from nongovernment organizations, lawyers' associations, political parties, and religious organizations;
  • Cease the use of spurious libel suits to squelch freedom of the press;
  • Annul the Cabinet of Minister's decree of April 1998 imposing new requirements for the registration of independent television stations; and
  • Adopt judicial reforms to allow all defendants to receive fair trials by international standards.

The Council of Europe plays a significant role in fostering human rights protections and advancing international standards throughout its member states. We urge you to raise these issues with the government and to request that concrete, measurable progress be made in each area prior to any further progress on Azerbaijan's application. We look forward to learning what measures you and the Council of Europe as a whole are contemplating to improve human rights conditions in Azerbaijan.

Sincerely,

Holly Cartner
Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia Division
Human Rights Watch

cc:
Mrs. Leni Fischer
Mr. András Bársony
Mr. Jan Kleijssen
Mr. Matjaz Gruden
Mr. Petr Sich
Mr. Birger Hagard
Mr. Allard A. Plate
Ms. Danielle Coin
Ms. Tanja Kleinsorge
Mr. Makhmud Mamedguliyev
Mr. David Atkinson
Mr. Jaakko Laakso
Lord Russell-Johnston
Mr. Peter Schieder
Mr. Walter Schwimmer