(Berlin) – Azerbaijan’s human rights record deteriorated in 2011 as the government cracked down on all forms of protests even as it sought to enhance its international prestige, Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2012.
Azerbaijan fostered a hostile environment for journalists and others critical of the authorities. The government severely restricted freedom of assembly, did not authorize a single opposition rally in the capital, Baku, and, swiftly and often violently, dispersed unauthorized gatherings. A sweeping urban renewal campaign in central Baku resulted in forced evictions, illegal expropriations, and house demolitions. The government brought politically motivated charges against critics and harassed human rights defenders.
“Azerbaijan is determined to boost its international image by taking leadership positions in regional and international forums, and by hosting mega-events,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The global stage, if anything, will put the government’s poor human rights record under a glaring spotlight so the authorities should improve the country’s record now.”
Azerbaijan was elected to the UN Security Council in October, and it will host the Eurovision Song Contest in May. It also has bid to become the host of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games.
In its 676-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including popular uprisings in the Arab world that few would have imagined. Given the violent forces resisting the “Arab Spring,” the international community has an important role to play in assisting the birth of rights-respecting democracies in the region, Human Rights Watch said in the report.
In Azerbaijan, the authorities cracked down on a series of protests in March and April inspired by the pro-democracy Arab Spring movements. Police detained more than 50 activists in March after a two-day protest. The courts tried dozens of activists in late night trials, imposing sentences of up to 10 days in detention. Hundreds more were detained in April, including public figures, journalists, and opposition activists. Fourteen of them were sentenced in unfair trials to up to three years in prison.
A youth activist was sentenced to two years in prison for draft evasion in what appeared to be retribution for promoting the March protest through social media. Bakhtyar Hajiyev, 29, had previously asked to perform alternative service, as permitted by law.
Another social media activist and opposition Popular Front party member, Jabbar Savalanli, 20, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison on bogus drug possession charges. In the days leading up to his arrest in March, he had posted comments online criticizing the government. Savalanli was released in December under an amnesty.
The authorities refused 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 the country since he was appointed in March 2009.
The government should release the activists detained on politically motivated charges and fully cooperate with the Council of Europe rapporteur, Human Rights Watch said.
The government’s urban renewal campaign in Baku will create parks, gardens, and elite residential buildings. But to make way for them, the authorities have forcibly evicted homeowners, often without warning or at night, and at times in clear disregard for residents’ health and safety. Homeowners often receive compensation well below market value and have few options for legal recourse.
In some cases, the authorities have demolished homes in violation of court injunctions, as they did when they demolished the office of the human rights defender Leyla Yunus, who had repeatedly criticized the government’s demolition campaign.
In another example of harassment of human right defenders, an Azerbaijani court sentenced Vidadi Isganderov, an activist who had run for parliament, to three years in prison on dubious charges of interference with the November 2010 vote. The authorities charged Isganderov several months after he filed a complaint alleging vote rigging and after he had been detained for participating in the April rallies.
Azerbaijan was harshly criticized by the European Union, United States, and other international and regional institutions over the arrest of youth activists and violations of freedoms expression, association, and assembly. Azerbaijan’s ten-year anniversary in the Council of Europe was in 2011. The Council has repeatedly criticized Azerbaijan’s human rights record.
“Ten years ago Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe and undertook to observe human rights and protect human dignity,” Williamson said. “Baku has a long way to go to meet its international obligations. To start, it should liberalize the media environment, release youth and political activists, and halt illegal expropriations.”