Human rights defender Rasul Jafarov at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly in Baku in June 2014. 

(Berlin) – Azerbaijan’s conviction on April 16, 2015, of a leading human rights activist and government critic, Rasul Jafarov, reflects the government’s relentless crackdown against independent voices, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately release Jafarov and vacate his politically motivated conviction. The authorities should also end their ongoing harassment of the country’s human rights community and allow human rights groups to function freely.

Jafarov’s conviction comes as Azerbaijan is in the international spotlight as host of the inaugural European Games starting June 12. Azerbaijan’s international partners should call for Jafarov’s and other wrongfully imprisoned activists’ immediate release and make clear they will not be sending high-level delegations to the opening of the games unless these individuals are freed and the government’s crackdown on civil society is brought to an end.

“Rasul Jafarov’s conviction is a terrible act of injustice,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Jafarov was one of the most authoritative and outspoken critics of politically motivated prosecutions in Azerbaijan, and now he has become a victim of one.”

Baku’s Grave Crimes Court convicted Jafarov on a range of politically motivated charges of tax evasion, abuse of power, illegal business activities, and embezzlement. The court sentenced him to six and a half years in prison.

Jafarov is the founder and chair of Human Rights Club, an independent human rights group. With his colleagues he began the campaign called Sport for Rights to raise awareness about politically motivated imprisonment and other human rights abuses in Azerbaijan in the period before the European Games. Jafarov had circulated the campaign strategy to his colleagues the night before his arrest in August 2014.

Jafarov had led several similar campaigns, including the Sing for Democracy campaign ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest held in Baku in May 2012.

Together with several colleagues – including the veteran human rights defender Leyla Yunus, a top human rights lawyer, Intigam Aliyev, and a leading investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova – Jafarov had been compiling a comprehensive list of victims of politically motivated arrests in Azerbaijan and pressing for their release. Like Jafarov, Yunus, Ismayilova, and others involved in the effort are also behind bars, awaiting trials on various trumped-up charges.

“There’s no doubt that Jafarov’s conviction is part of the government’s concerted effort to wipe out critical voices in the country,” Gogia said.

The charges against Jafarov stemmed largely from Human Rights Club’s lack of state registration. The group was established in December 2010 and had made numerous unsuccessful attempts to register with the Justice Ministry. Human Rights Club’s challenge to the government’s refusal to register the group is pending before the European Court of Human Rights.

Meanwhile, Jafarov had received grant funds through a registered group or as a registered individual taxpayer. Unregistered groups in Azerbaijan have commonly resorted to this practice when the government has persistently refused to register them.

Since Jafarov’s arrest, the authorities have imposed an additional series of extremely restrictive laws on nongovernmental organizations, requiring government licensing of foreign donor organizations and government approval of each awarded grant. Authorities have also frozen bank accounts of over 50 groups, and in some cases accounts of their staff members.

The authorities have effectively cut all foreign funding opportunities for many groups, forcing them to stop their work and in some cases to close, Human Rights Watch said.

In March, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, Nils Muižnieks, made a damning submission to the European Court of Human Rights on Jafarov’s case, in which he said that the case is part of “a clear pattern of repression in Azerbaijan against those expressing dissent or criticism of the authorities. This concerns particularly human rights defenders, but also journalists, bloggers and other activists, who may face a variety of criminal charges which defy credibility.” He emphasized that these criminal charges “often constitute reprisals against those who cooperate with international institutions.”

“Jafarov’s conviction should be a jarring wake-up call to Azerbaijan’s international partners,” Gogia said. “They should send a clear message to Baku that business as usual is impossible until Jafarov and his colleagues are freed and the crackdown against independent groups stopped.”