Human rights activist, Leyla Yunus, at the French embassy in Baku on May 22, 2013, when she was awarded the Knight of the Legion of Honor of France.

© 2013 Aziz Karimov

(Brussels) – The European Union special representative for human rights should use his visit to Azerbaijan beginning February 23, 2015, to insist that the authorities release dozens of activists and journalists imprisoned on politically motivated charges, Human Rights Watch, International Partnership for Human Rights, and Front Line Defenders said today.

Stavros Lambrinidis, the special representative, will visit Baku at the invitation of the Azerbaijani government.

“As the EU’s leading voice on human rights, Lambrinidis has a unique opportunity of a Baku visit to insist that the government end its campaign to silence critics and release the dozens of activists and journalists behind bars on bogus charges,” said Mary Lawlor, director at Front Line Defenders. “This is also a crucial moment to make clear that Azerbaijan’s appalling human rights record is an impediment to deeper relations with the EU.”

The Azerbaijani government has for years curtailed criticism of the government and public debate, culminating in a severe and unprecedented crackdown on journalists and activists. In the last year, the authorities have convicted or detained more than 30 human rights defenders, activists, lawyers, journalists, and bloggers on false and politically motivated charges. Many face serious criminal charges, including  “high treason” and  “tax evasion,” which carry lengthy prison sentences. Numerous other activists have fled or gone into hiding fearing arrest on similar charges.

The authorities have also harassed and raided media outlets and imposed a series of extremely restrictive laws on nongovernmental organizations, effectively cutting off all funding opportunities for many groups, forcing them to stop their work and in some cases to close.

“The EU and its 28 member states have pledged to ‘throw their full weight’ behind human rights defenders but their response to Azerbaijan’s crackdown on critics has been tepid at best,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. “No EU official should visit Baku without publicly insisting on the immediate and unconditional release of jailed activists and without making it clear that, until Azerbaijan halts repression, it can’t hope for closer EU ties.”

The EU is negotiating a Strategic Modernization Partnership document with Azerbaijan. In September 2014, the European Parliament adopted a resolution stressing that the EU’s closer ties with Azerbaijan should be conditioned on the release of imprisoned human rights defenders and calling for an “end to repression and intimidation of NGOs.”

During his visit, Lambrinidis should also secure visits with leading human rights defenders and journalists in detention, the human rights groups said.

Among those in detention are Leyla Yunus, a well-known human rights activist and the head of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, and her husband, Arif Yunus, a prominent historian, who face multiple criminal charges with lengthy prison sentences, including treason.

The authorities detained a prominent youth activist, Rasul Jafarov, director of the Human Rights Club, in August 2014 on criminal tax charges that carry a sentence of up to 12 years in prison. Intigam Aliyev, a prominent lawyer and director of the nongovernmental Legal Education Society, also detained in August, faces similar charges.

The authorities have also used various criminal charges to silence outspoken journalists. Among them is an award-winning investigative reporter, Khadija Ismayilova, who was detained in December and initially charged with driving a former colleague to attempt suicide, but additional tax-related charges were added in February.

“Azerbaijan’s leading activists and critics are counting on the EU to stand up for its principles and for them,” said Brigitte Dufour, director at International Partnership for Human Rights. Those who have been silenced expect Lambrinidis to be their voice.”