(Berlin) – The Azerbaijani Supreme Court lessened a serious injustice by ordering the release on parole on June 4, 2012, of a prominent activist, Human Rights Watch said today. The activist, Bakhtiar Hajiyev, had been imprisoned after using social media to promote peaceful demonstrations.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should use her visit to Azerbaijan on June 6 to press for the release of those imprisoned on politically motivated charges and for greater respect for freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. She is scheduled to meet with President Ilham Aliyev as well as with Azerbaijani civil society leaders.
“Bakhtiar Hajiyevwill soon be going home after more than a year in prison, but many other activists in Azerbaijan remain behind bars,” said Jane Buchanan, acting deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch. “During her upcoming visit to Baku, US Secretary of State Clinton should call on the Azerbaijani authorities to immediately free the more than 17 journalists, peaceful activists, and human rights defenders locked up on trumped-up charges.”
The Supreme Court ordered the release of Hajiyev, 30, a member of the Azerbaijani youth movement Positive Change. He had been arrested on March 4, 2011, in advance of a March 11 protest inspired by the Arab Spring that Hajiyevactively promoted on Facebook and other social media. He was charged with evading mandatory military service and, on May 18, 2011, was sentenced to two years in prison. Hajiyevalleges that police beat him while he was in custody, but the prosecutor's office failed to investigate the allegations.
The US views Azerbaijan as a strategic partner in the region. Azerbaijan provides its air space for the transfer of coalition troops to Afghanistan and supports US efforts to combat terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It is also a key player in US efforts to diversify and secure a global energy supply.
But Azerbaijan remains hostile toward free media and other forms of free expression, Human Rights Watch said. Independent journalists, human rights defenders, and others seeking to express their opinions, investigate issues of public interest, or criticize government authorities have been attacked, harassed, threatened, and arrested. Dozens of journalists, social activists, and human rights have been prosecuted and imprisoned or fined in recent years.
“Secretary Clinton has an opportunity to send a strong message about the US government’s expectations of a key regional partner,” Buchanan said. “Hajiyev’s release is important, but Clinton needs to be clear that America’s friends need to respect free expression and other basic rights all the time.”
Following the unprecedented international scrutiny of Azerbaijan’s human rights record in the period leading up to the Eurovision Song Contest, which Azerbaijan hosted on May 22 to 26, senior officials in Azerbaijan called for further crackdowns on independent civil society.
In a speech on May 31 at a Baku conference on “The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations in the Development of Civil Society,” Ali Hasanov, the deputy head of the presidential administration, also singled out international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and others, accusing them of unfairly criticizing Azerbaijan’s human rights record.
Hasanov called on civil society in Azerbaijan to “mobilize its resistance against” the political opposition and independent media. “These opposition activists, journalists and media outlets shouldn't … dare to appear in public places or city streets,” he said. “Public hatred should be demonstrated against them.”
“Threatening statements from senior officials against civil society expose the depth of the Azerbaijani authorities’ unwillingness to tolerate critical voices,” Buchanan said. “As the Eurovision spotlight has faded, the US and other governments should insist that the government end its campaign to harass the political opposition, independent journalists, and local activists into silence.”
At least five journalists and four human rights defenders are in prison or pre-trial detention in Azerbaijan. The journalists are Aydin Janiyev, Vugar Gonagov, Zaur Guliyev, Avaz Zeynalli, and Anar Bayramli. Two human rights defenders, Vidadi Isganderov and Taleh Khasmammadov,have been sentenced to prison terms of three and four years respectively on charges widely believed to be in retaliation for their criticism of government officials.The other two, Ogtay Gulaliyev and Bakhtiyar Mammadov, are in pre-trial detention on spurious charges.
At least 10 activists detained in conjunction with peaceful demonstrations in March and April 2011 arein prison. Three activists sentenced in relation to the demonstrations were given amnesty, although at least two were forced to make Soviet-style denunciations of their colleagues and renounce their political beliefs.