Police use water cannons to break up an unsanctioned peaceful rally in Baku on March 10, 2013 to protest the noncombat death of a military conscript and abuses in the army.

© 2013 Reuters

(Berlin) – The Azerbaijani government’s record on freedom of expression, assembly, and association, already poor, deteriorated even further in 2013, Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2014. The downhill slide was especially dramatic in the period leading up to the October presidential vote.

Azerbaijani authorities arrested dozens of political activists on bogus charges, imprisoned critical journalists, broke up several peaceful public demonstrations, and adopted legislation that further restricted fundamental freedoms. This crackdown was the backdrop for the election in which the incumbent, President Ilham Aliyev, was re-elected in October for a third term with 84.5 percent of the vote.

“In the past year, Azerbaijan’s government has launched an unprecedented crackdownon critics,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But locking up anyone who criticizes the government on bizarre charges will hardly increase the government’s credibility at home or abroad.”

In the 667-page report, its24th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. Syria’s widespread killings of civilians elicited horror but few steps by world leaders to stop it, Human Rights Watch said. A reinvigorated doctrine of “responsibility to protect” seems to have prevented some mass atrocities in Africa.  Majorities in power in Egypt and other countries have suppressed dissent and minority rights. And Edward Snowden’s revelations about US surveillance programs reverberated around the globe.

The Azerbaijani authorities used a range of spurious narcotics and weapons possession, hooliganism, incitement, and even treason charges in 2013 to prosecute at least 23 political activists, journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders critical of the government. All 23 are behind bars, most in pretrial custody. The government should free them and everyone else locked up on politically motivated charges, Human Rights Watch said.

Among those imprisoned is Anar Mammadli, chairman of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre (EMDS), a leading independent election monitoring group in Azerbaijan, which monitored the October presidential vote and concluded that it was neither free nor fair. On December 16, a Baku court sent him to three months of pretrial detention on tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, and abuse of office charges. 

Others imprisoned in 2013 include several high-ranking opposition political party members, including Ilgar Mammadov, chair of the opposition group REAL, arrested on February 4 and charged with inciting violence; Tofig Yagublu, Musavat party deputy chair, also arrested in February on similar charges; and eight youth activists who face up to 12 years in jail for drugs and other criminal charges related to an alleged plan to instigate violence at a peaceful protest in March.

Parliament adopted legislative amendments further restricting freedom of expression, association, and assembly. These include increasing fines up to 100-fold  for participation in unsanctioned demonstrations; raising from 15 to 60 days the maximum jail sentence for minor public order offenses often used to incarcerate protesters; imposing additional regulatory measures and stricter funding requirements for independent groups; and extending criminal defamation legislation to Internet-based content, including opinions expressed on social media.

Azerbaijan’s international partners criticized the Azerbaijani government for serious shortcomings in meeting its human rights commitments but also failed to use the full potential of their relationships with the government to press for rights improvements.

“It’s clear that the Azerbaijani leadership cares about its international image, but much needs to be done internally before the government can be said to be meeting human rights obligations,” Gogia said. “Azerbaijan’s international partners should use clear human rights benchmarks if they are to succeed in persuading Baku to respect its commitments.”