BAKU, Azerbaijan - Baku is bustling. Every time I visit, I am amazed at the new office buildings, homes, highways, bridges, parks and enormous flags that dominate the city's landscape. Thanks to its oil riches, this country in the South Caucasus has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. But prosperity has not brought with it the pleasures of a free society.
Parliamentary elections are coming up on Sunday, but there is little sign here of the excitement that one would expect. The central public square in Baku, where opposition supporters used to gather, has been turned into a parking lot. The government routinely denies requests to hold demonstrations. Police swiftly and often violently break up unauthorized protests, often arresting peaceful protesters and journalists documenting police actions.
The government uses criminal defamation and other laws and violent attacks to silence dissenting journalists and civil society activists, frightening many into silence. At least nine journalists have fled Azerbaijan in recent years, fearing repercussions for their work. Azerbaijan stands out in the region as a leading jailer of journalists.
With the vanishing space for free expression, the upcoming elections risk the same fate as the fraud-tainted elections here in 2003, 2005 and 2008. The international reaction had been muted in the past because there were high hopes that the English-speaking president, Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his late father, Heydr, in 2003, would bring the county closer to the West, and embrace gradual liberalization and democratization.
Two presidential elections and one for parliament since then have proved that those expectations were premature at best. Although Aliyev has consolidated his power and facilitated the oil-driven economic boom, this relative stability has come at a real cost to Azerbaijan's citizens: state suppression of many fundamental freedoms, including most notably freedom of expression.
Azerbaijan abolished official state censorship in 1998, leading to an initial outburst of relatively unrestricted reporting. But the government has used other, less obvious means since then - harassment, regulations and restrictions on access to information - to restrict free expression and the media.
Senior Azerbaijani officials regularly bring criminal and civil defamation complaints against journalists and human rights defenders who criticize the government. The Internal Affairs Ministry has been particularly active in filing defamation complaints, contending that media reports about torture, ill-treatment or corruption have damaged the ministry's reputation. Criminal defamation prosecutions have often resulted in prison sentences or substantial fines against journalists.
Criminal penalties for defamation are an unnecessary and disproportionate response to allegations that damage has been done to an individual's reputation, particularly where the issue is of significant public interest or involves public figures. Under international law, politicians and other public figures are expected to tolerate wider and more intense scrutiny of their conduct than private individuals. Respect for and protection of free speech requires as much.
One of the most egregious criminal defamation cases was against the outspoken government critic Eynulla Fatullayev, founder and editor-in-chief of two of the largest and most popular newspapers in the country - Gundelik Azerbaijan and Realny Azerbaijan. Fatullayev has been in prison since April 2007. He was convicted of both civil and criminal defamation for a newspaper article and internet posting about the 1992 Khojali massacre, during the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The article questioned the version of the Khojali events most commonly accepted in Azerbaijan. Six months later, Fatullayev was found guilty of terrorism and inciting ethnic hatred for other articles, giving him a total sentence of eight-and-a-half years.
In April 2010, the European Court of Human Rights found that Azerbaijan had grossly and disproportionately restricted freedom of expression by imprisoning Fatullayev and ordered his immediate release. The court decision became final in October after the government unsuccessfully appealed. But Fatullayev remains in prison.
In another case, one of the most gratuitous applications of criminal defamation laws, Education Ministry officials brought charges against Alovsat Osmanli, a mathematician, physicist and textbook author, after he publicly criticized the ministry in January for errors in mathematics textbooks. In February, all 11 members of the council that evaluates textbooks for publication and for use in the country's schools brought a criminal defamation complaint against Osmanli. The case is pending.
In a July speech, President Aliyev gave encouraging signals about abolishing criminal defamation.
The new parliament will have a unique opportunity to end the practice, and it should.
The oil revenues that brought Azerbaijan economic success have also made the government more resistant to reforms. But as oil revenues inevitably level off, only an open political system can prevent Azerbaijan from sliding into further repression.