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(Berlin) – Azerbaijan’s arrest of a leading human rights defender and government critic, Rasul Jafarov, reflects the government’s concerted efforts to silence its critics. The authorities should immediately secure Jafarov’s release from pretrial custody and drop all politically motivated charges against him. They should also end their ongoing harassment against independent organizations.

“Rasul Jafarov is one of the most outspoken critics of politically motivated prosecution in Azerbaijan and of its ever-deteriorating rights record,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “By arresting Jafarov, the authorities are sending an unambiguous message to activists to stop their human rights advocacy.”

The Grave Crimes Investigation Unit of the General Prosecutor’s Office arrested Jafarov on August 2, 2014. He is the founder and chair of Human Rights Club, an independent human rights group. Together with several partner organizations, Jafarov had been compiling a comprehensive list of victims of politically motivated arrests in Azerbaijan and pressing for their release. He planned to submit the list to the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, which in June had appointed a special rapporteur on politically motivated prosecutions in Azerbaijan.

Human Rights Club had spearheaded several critical campaigns against politically motivated prosecutions in Azerbaijan, including the “Sing for Democracy” campaign in the lead up to the Eurovision Song Contest in May 2012.

On July 30, 2014, Azerbaijani authorities arrested Leyla Yunus, another human rights defender who was working on the list with Jafarov, on multiple charges, including treason.

Jafarov’s arrest takes place amid a comprehensive crackdown on independent organizations and political activists. In the past two years, Azerbaijani authorities have brought or threatened unfounded criminal charges against dozens of political activists, journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders, most of whom are behind bars. The crackdown continued even as, on May 14, Azerbaijan took over the rotating chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, Europe’s foremost human rights body.

“Jafarov’s arrest should be a jarring wake-up call to the Council of Europe and its member states,” Denber said. “They should do everything possible to secure Jafarov’s release.”

On July 30, Azerbaijani border police barred Jafarov from crossing the border to travel to neighboring Georgia, and the prosecutor’s office questioned him repeatedly for the next two days. His house was searched on July 31. The authorities had initially designated Jafarov a witness in a criminal investigation against several international funding groups, but on August 2, they charged him with tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, and abuse of office. The same day Nasimi district court placed Jafarov in pretrial custody for three months.

The charges against Jafarov stem from Human Rights Club’s lack of state registration. The group was established in December 2010 and had made numerous unsuccessful attempts to register. Human Rights Club filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights over the government’s refusal to register the group, and the case is pending.

Meanwhile, Jafarov had been receiving grant funds through a registered group or as a registered individual taxpayer, a common practice in Azerbaijan in response to the difficulties human rights groups face when they try to register.

A range of legislative amendments adopted last year and signed into law in February 2014 significantly limited the ability of non-registered groups to fund their work through donations and grants in Azerbaijan.

Although Jafarov fully cooperated with the investigation and willingly appeared every time the Grave Crimes Investigation Unit summoned him for questioning, the prosecutor’s office requested pretrial custody as a restraining measure against him, citing vague claims of flight risk.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Azerbaijan is a party, states, “It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody.” The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which provides authoritative interpretation of the covenant, has determined that bail should be granted except in cases in which there is a likelihood that the accused would abscond, destroy evidence, or influence witnesses.

In the absence of a lawful and credible basis for detaining Jafarov, he should be immediately freed from custody.

“The government fears human rights work that exposes abuses, and its response is to abuse the law and push organizations to its margins,” Denber said. “Groups that are outspoken and challenge government policies, or work on controversial issues, are now extremely vulnerable to criminal prosecution.”

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