Dear High Representative,
We write in advance of the upcoming Cooperation Councils with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia to urge you to ensure these meetings are used to raise concrete concerns in human rights, making clear that addressing them is of core importance to the EU and an essential component of the EU’s engagement with each country.
Below we outline our principal concerns about the current human rights situation in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia and specific steps each government should take to address them.
We hope to see the EU proactively advance the reform steps outlined here in all relevant dialogues with the governments concerned, including in the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) Action Plans and the ongoing Association Agreement negotiations process. It is critically important, both for EU credibility in the region and the cause of human rights there, that EU engagement serves to promote tangible improvements and lends support those in these countries who work to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The Armenian government has taken a few steps recently to address serious human rights violations that took place in the context of the 2008 election-related violence and political crackdown. Notably, it has released political prisoners and allowed large demonstrations by the political opposition to take place for the first time since the March 2008 clashes. However, opposition activists allege that the authorities prevented demonstrators from traveling from other cities to participate in subsequent large opposition rallies.
Torture and ill-treatment in police custody persist. Local and international human rights organizations report ill-treatment of detainees. In August the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) made public the report on its 2010 visit, which documented a “significant number of credible and consistent allegations of physical ill-treatment of detained persons,” as well as torture of detainees, allegedly in order to secure confessions and other information.
The government has failed to effectively investigate a troubling number of deaths in custody. Local human rights groups report ill-treatment, hazing, and at least 14 non-combat deaths in the military between January and September 2011.
One step forward in media freedoms was the decriminalization of libel in May 2010. However, amendments to the civil code introduced high monetary fines for libel and defamation and led to an increase in lawsuits against newspapers, particularly by public officials. In some cases courts’ disproportionately large damage awards threaten the survival of newspapers.
Lack of media pluralism remains a problem. The government has used the process of digitalization of broadcast media to reduce rather than expand the number of television stations in Armenia. In December 2010 the National Commission on Television and Radio, responsible for broadcasting licenses, denied independent television station A1+ a license for the 13th time, despite a 2008 European Court of Human Rights judgment that Armenia had violated freedom of expression by repeatedly and arbitrarily denying the station a license.
The EU should urge the Armenian government to:
- Ensure an independent, thorough, transparent and conclusive investigation into excessive use of police force on March 1, 2008, including 10 deaths, and hold accountable those found responsible.
- Guarantee media pluralism and diversify the National Commission on Television and Radio (NCTR) membership by allowing figures who enjoy public trust to become members.
- Ensure that damages awarded in defamation suits are strictly proportionate to the alleged harm done. Government officials and institutions should not bring defamation suits in relation to accusations made about them in an official capacity.
- Ensure thorough, independent, and effective investigations into cases of torture and ill-treatment, deaths in custody, and deaths in the military not resulting from combat.
Azerbaijan’s human rights record has been on continual decline in recent years under the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Ilham Aliyev. EU engagement in the framework of the ENP and the ongoing Association Agreement negotiations is an important vehicle for promoting human rights reform. In addition, Azerbaijan will be hosting the Eurovision song contest next May, bringing added visibility to Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record and providing a rare opportunity to secure improvements. The Azerbaijani government has a clear incentive to make concrete improvements as soon as possible, prior to the May 2012 event.
The government has effectively banned demonstrations in the capital and arrested hundreds of people in connection with peaceful protests in March and April 2011. While most were released, 14 – many of them political activists – remain behind bars. In addition, two social media activists (Jabbar Savalanli and Bakhtiar Hajiyev) and a human rights defender (Vidadi Isganderov) have also been imprisoned on trumped-up, politically motivated charges.
The government has also interfered with the work of human rights groups and initiated politically motivated disciplinary and criminal actions against several lawyers. In March the Justice Ministry suspended the non-governmental organization Azerbaijan Human Rights House, member of the International Human Rights House Network and a registered organization, which served as an important training and resource center and conference venue for local groups. In August, following a complaint by a police chief, Azerbaijan’s Bar Association suspended a lawyer, Khalid Bagirov. Another lawyer, Elchin Namazov, was permanently disbarred and faces criminal sanctions following his disagreement with a judge during a trial.
The authorities persist in their refusal to grant a visa to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s rapporteur on political prisoners in Azerbaijan, who has not been allowed to visit Azerbaijan since his appointment in March 2009.
Despite repeated calls from Azerbaijan’s international partners for the government to decriminalize libel and refrain from using criminal and civil libel charges against critical voices, officials initiated seven libel cases against journalists and others in the first half of 2011 alone; at least two resulted in imprisonment. In May the government finally released from prison the journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, but the atmosphere for journalists and other critics in Azerbaijan remains hostile. The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, a local media monitoring organization, reported that more than 50 journalists, both domestic and foreign, were harassed or attacked in 2011.
Since 2009, citing city “beautification,” the Baku mayor’s office has unlawfully evicted hundreds of residents from their homes—sometimes using force—and demolished their homes. Homeowners often receive compensation well below market value and have few options for legal recourse.
The EU should urge the Azerbaijani government to:
- End impunity for harassment and violence against journalists, including by police officials.
- Guarantee freedom of assembly and release activists imprisoned on politically-motivated charges, including Bakhtiar Hajiyev, Vidadi Isganderov and Jabbar Savalanli.
- Ensure the unimpeded work of all human rights groups, including the Azerbaijan Human Rights House; stop interfering with the work of independent lawyers and ensure that Khalid Bagirov and Elchin Namazov are able to practice law without fear of retribution.
- Without further delay, fully cooperate with the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly rapporteur on political prisoners and ensure his unimpeded visit to Azerbaijan.
- Ensure a transparent legal process for any expropriation, eviction, and demolition of private properties; and adequate and fair compensation to those property owners forced to relocate. All forced evictions should take place with respect for human health, safety, security and dignity.
Georgia’s human rights record remains uneven. The government continues to live with its legacy of excessive use of force to disperse massive demonstrations in November 2007, which injured at least 500 individuals, and has yet to conduct effective investigations into it. It likewise has not effectively investigated the June 15, 2009 police attack against 50 opposition supporters outside police headquarters, in which at least 17 demonstrators were injured. In May 2011 police again used excessive force to disperse anti-government protests in Tbilisi, 15 minutes after the protesters’ rally permit expired. In summary trials courts convicted over 90 of the protestors, sentencing them to up to 30 days administrative detention.
In 2010 the government increased the maximum misdemeanor sentence from 30 to 90 days. Although the significant period of detention that can be imposed for offences means a defendant is facing the equivalent to a criminal charge, anyone charged with an administrative offence does not have access to full due process rights. Administrative detainees stay in Ministry of Interior holding cells, which are unsuitable for detention over 72 hours, with inadequate access to exercise and hygienic and medical care.
Beginning in June 2010 the authorities evicted thousands of internally displaced persons(IDPs) from state-owned temporary collective centers in Tbilisi, supposedly to provide them with durable housing solutions. The authorities failed to respect international standards regarding evictions: they did not engage in genuine consultation with IDPs and failed to agree on adequate alternative housing or compensation prior to eviction. Georgia has some 246,000 IDPs as a legacy of conflicts in the 1990s and in 2008.
The EU should urge the Georgian government to:
- Launch an investigation into excessive and disproportionate use of force by law enforcement officials. Such investigation should be transparent, thorough and conclusive, capable of leading to sanctioning of any individuals who engaged in unlawful use of force.
- Amend the law on administrative offences to significantly reduce the amount of time one can be held in administrative detention to no more than 48 hours and ensure full due process protections for those charged under the code of administrative offences.
- Protect the rights of internally displaced persons, including their right to housing.
Thank you for your attention and with best wishes for a productive meeting.