(Berlin) – Azerbaijani authorities on March 30, 2015, refused to allow a Human Rights Watch researcher to enter the country. The senior South Caucasus researcher, Giorgi Gogia, was planning to attend the trials of two Azerbaijani human rights defenders who were arrested on bogus charges and have been behind bars awaiting trial.

When Gogia arrived at Heydar Aliyev International Airport, authorities refused to allow him into the country, but would not provide an explanation. Immigration officials took his passport, and required him to remain in the passport hall. Thirty-one hours later they handed his passport to the flight crew aboard the plane Gogia took back to Tbilisi. No explanation was provided.

“Barring Giorgi Gogia from attending the trial hearings shows just how far Azerbaijan’s authorities have taken their crackdown on human rights,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “They’ve ruthlessly silenced many critical voices inside the country, and now they don’t want to let anyone in to bear witness to what they are doing.”

It is the first time that Azerbaijani authorities have denied Human Rights Watch staff members entry to the country.

For years the Azerbaijani government has had a poor human rights record, but in the past year a new crackdown has led to the arrest of the country’s human rights leaders and the forced shuttering of many independent groups.

Gogia had planned to attend hearings for Rasul Jafarov and Intigam Aliyev, both arrested in August, who are being tried in separate cases. Aliyev, one of Azerbaijan’s most respected human rights lawyers, is on trial on charges of tax evasion, abuse of power, illegal business activities, and embezzlement. Jafarov, who is being tried on similar charges, had planned a local “Sports for Rights” campaign, to draw attention to the human rights situation in the lead-up to the European Games, which Baku will host from June 12 to 28.

In the last year, the Azerbaijani authorities have used a range of bogus criminal charges, including narcotics and weapons possession, tax evasion, hooliganism, incitement, and even treason, to arrest or imprison at least 35 human rights defenders, political and civil activists, journalists, and bloggers. The crackdown has prompted dozens of others to flee the country or go into hiding. Many of the activists face similar charges, suggesting the punitive and political nature of the allegations.

In recent months Azerbaijani authorities also froze the bank accounts of numerous independent civic groups and their leaders, forcing these organizations to suspend their work or close. The government has also refused to register foreign grants and increased government control of foreign funding, making it virtually impossible for groups that criticize the government to function. The government has for many years harassed independent newspapers and television stations and forced many independent media outlets to shut down.

Human Rights Watch said other governments and international organizations should demand an end to the crackdown and the immediate and unconditional release of wrongfully imprisoned human rights defenders and journalists.

“It’s shocking that less than three months before the opening of the European Games, when the government is welcoming the world to Baku, it is closing the country to outside scrutiny,” Williamson said.

Photo essay highlights the plight of 12 people serving or facing long prison terms in Azerbaijan, apparently in retaliation for criticizing government policies.