German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev address a news conference before talks in Berlin, February 4, 2010.

(Berlin) – Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel should urge president Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan to free leading human rights defenders, journalists, and other government critics jailed unjustly in Azerbaijan, Human Rights Watch said today. Merkel is scheduled to meet Aliyev in Berlin on January 21, 2015, to discuss bilateral relations, energy policy, and other issues.

In a staggering crackdown on critical voices, Azerbaijani authorities arrested and imprisoned more than 30 government critics in 2014 alone. The country has also adopted legislative changes and other restrictive measures to virtually close space for independent groups.

“Merkel should not miss this opportunity to urge Azerbaijan’s president, in public and in private, to end this attack on human rights” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The charges against these activists are politically motivated. Merkel could make a difference in securing their freedom.”

Over the past year, the Azerbaijani government used a range of bogus criminal charges, including narcotics and weapons possession, tax evasion, hooliganism, incitement, and even treason, to convict or imprison at least 34 human rights defenders, political and civil activists, journalists, and bloggers, prompting others to flee the country or go into hiding.

Following prosecutors’ requests, courts have frozen the bank accounts of at least 50 nongovernmental groups and in some cases accounts of staff, as part of ongoing criminal investigations against several foreign donors. As a result, at least three of the country’s most established human rights groups have been forced to close, and numerous others had to halt operations.

Against the backdrop of the increasing crackdown, Azerbaijan is preparing to host the first European Games, a mega-sporting event intended to boost the country’s international image. This multi-discipline competition involving national teams from European countries will be staged for the first time this year, in Baku from June 12 to 28.

Merkel should make clear that Germany will not send a high-level government delegation to the European Games unless activists behind bars are freed, Human Rights Watch said.

Among others, Merkel should call for the immediate release of the following people:

  • Leyla Yunus, director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, and her husband, Arif Yunus, a prominent historian, who have been charged with treason, tax evasion, and illegal entrepreneurship. Neither Leyla nor Arif have been questioned since their arrest in early August, highlighting the punitive nature of their detention.
  • Rasul Jafarov, Human Rights Club director and Intigam Aliyev, head of the Legal Education Society; both were arrested in August and charged with tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, and abuse of authority. Intigam Aliyev’s group had helped hundreds of Azerbaijanis bring cases to the European Court of Human Rights. Rasul Jafarov has 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.
  • Khadija Ismayilova, Azerbaijan’s most high-profile investigative journalist, who had extensively reported on corruption at the highest level of government, was arrested on December 5, 2014. She is in pretrial custody, pending investigation on questionable charges of allegedly driving an ex-boyfriend to attempt suicide. In recent years she was frequently harassed by the authorities. The media outlet she worked for, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was raided and closed by the prosecutor’s office in December.
  • Anar Mammadli, chairman of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center, an independent election-monitoring group, sentenced to five and a half years in prison in May 2014, on charges of tax evasion and abuse of office. The center had monitored the October 2013 presidential vote and concluded that it was neither free nor fair.
  • Ilgar Mammadov, a prominent political analyst and opposition party leader, sentenced in March 2014, to seven years in prison, on dubious charges of inciting violence. In May, the European Court of Human Rights found that the authorities had arrested Mammadov “to silence or punish [him] for criticizing the government.” He remains behind bars.

“President Aliyev is seeking a greater legitimacy by meeting the world leaders and hosting mega sporting events,” Williamson said. “Merkel should send a clear message that closer political and economic ties with Europe are directly linked to Azerbaijan’s release of unjustly jailed journalists and human rights advocates and respect for fundamental human rights.”