Azerbaijan’s six-month chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers comes to an end this week, and not a moment too soon. It can be said without exaggeration that Azerbaijan’s tenure represented an assault on the institution and everything it stands for.
Azerbaijani leadership spoke out on progressive youth policies, while back home young activists were being jailed; it hosted a high-level conference on the European Court of Human Rights, while Azerbaijan’s leading lawyer was arrested on bogus tax-related charges; it also failed to implement the court’s judgment finding Azerbaijan in violation of the European Convention for imprisoning an opposition activist on politically motivated charges.
When President Ilham Aliyev came to Strasbourg to speak to the Parliamentary Assembly in June, he was unrepentant. He didn’t acknowledge any human rights problems in Azerbaijan and called anyone who challenged him liars. I was shocked listening to him, and feared for my colleagues and friends who criticized him at home and abroad. My worst fears came to pass: the Azerbaijani colleagues who came to the assembly to publicize Azerbaijan’s atrocious human rights record now either languish in Azerbaijani jails, are in hiding, or have fled the country fearing prosecution.
Perversely, over the six months Azerbaijan headed the council it actually stepped up its crackdown, which included the arrest of at least 11 people and conviction of at least nine others on politically motivated charges, sentencing them to various prison terms following flawed trials.
These include the country’s most prominent human rights defenders, including Leyla Yunus, and her husband, the historian Arif Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, and Intigam Aliyev. All four are in pretrial detention on spurious charges, ranging from tax evasion to treason.
Azerbaijani authorities have also used restrictive new laws regulating nongovernmental organizations and other strong-arm tactics to try to starve independent groups of their funding in order to silence them.
During its chairmanship, the Azerbaijani government has caused a human rights crisis in the country and in the Council of Europe. It has put to the test the council’s standing as Europe’s foremost human rights body. The Council of Europe’s leadership should condemn Baku’s behavior in the strongest possible terms and make clear that there cannot be business as usual until those imprisoned on politically motivated charges are freed and the crackdown brought to an end.