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Azerbaijan is playing games with Europe

Facing massive human rights crackdown as the European Games near, EU should call a timeout.

Published in: Politico

I was dreading my visit to Baku at the end of March. In the 10 months since my last visit, the Azerbaijan authorities have either arrested or imprisoned many of my friends and colleagues there, or driven them into exile or hiding.

During the short flight from neighboring Georgia, I was thinking about Baku’s ruthless campaign to silence its critics. I was feeling profoundly sad that instead of meeting two close colleagues to talk about human rights or just have drinks, I would instead be attending their trials. Both were accused of illegal business activities, tax evasion, and other offenses. Little did I know that Azerbaijani customs officials would strip me of my passport, refuse me entry, and force me to leave after a 31-hour ordeal in the transit zone.

I spent a day and a half there in limbo, without sleep. I was taken back and forth between the passport control areas and the transit zone of the airport, repeatedly asked questions about the purpose of my visit, and finally put on a flight back to Georgia without any explanation. I was able to go back home to my family, but there are at least half a dozen human rights defenders in Azerbaijan’s prisons who cannot, including several with significant health problems.

For many years Azerbaijan’s human rights record has been deeply problematic, but the crackdown on independent voices and government critics dramatically escalated about 18 months ago. In 2014 alone, the authorities levied 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, activists, journalists, and bloggers.

Baku has been busy tossing its critics into prison just as it works to polish its image abroad. In less than two months it will be hosting the inaugural European Games, promising a “spectacular and unique celebration of sports” with over 6,000 athletes from 50 European nations. To ensure the games succeed, Azerbaijan is even footing the bill for all national teams to attend.

I flew to Baku to attend the trials of two prominent Azerbaijani human rights defenders, Intigam Aliyev and Rasul Jafarov, who have been behind bars since August on a slew of bogus tax charges.

Jafarov, a young human rights activist, had been compiling a comprehensive list of victims of politically motivated prosecutions in Azerbaijan, and campaigning for their release. In 2012, when Azerbaijan hosted another of its prestige events, the Eurovision Song Contest, as the government arrested dozens of peaceful protesters, imprisoned bloggers and other critics under politically motivated charges, and pursued journalists under harsh libel laws, Rasul led a campaign to draw attention to Azerbaijan’s dismal human rights record, and he was putting together a coalition to do the same in the lead up to the European Games, clearly something that the government has no interest in tolerating. On April 16, Baku’s Grave Crimes Court sentenced Jafarov to six and a half years in jail.

Aliyev is Azerbaijan’s top human rights lawyer. He has educated, taught, and mentored a new generation of human rights defenders. I have worked with him for many years when documenting the pattern of politically motivated imprisonment in Azerbaijan, and always admired his dedication to human rights and compassion for victims of abuses. He has represented hundreds of victims of human rights abuses in Azerbaijan before the European Court of Human Rights. Prosecutors requested a 10-year prison sentence for Aliyev. This week, he was sentenced to seven years and six months in jail.

Rasul and Intigam are among the dozens of human rights defenders, political and civil activists, journalists and bloggers who have been convicted or imprisoned recently on politically motivated charges. Among them are the country’s leading investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, the veteran human rights defender Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif, and a prominent political analyst, Ilgar Mammadov. He remains behind bars despite a May 2014 European Court judgment that found that he had been arrested “to silence or punish [him] for criticizing the Government.”

Also in the past 15 months, Azerbaijani authorities have harassed and raided media outlets and imposed a series of extremely restrictive laws on nongovernmental organizations, effectively cutting off all foreign funding opportunities for independent groups. Courts have also frozen bank accounts of at least 50 organizations and in some cases accounts of staff. As a result, some of the country’s most important groups have been forced to shut down. Among them is the largest media rights monitoring group, the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, which was raided and sealed last August, while its director, Emin Huseynov, fearing for his safety, sought shelter in the Swiss Embassy in Baku. He remains there to this day.

In February, Niels Muzniks, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, made a damning submission to the European Court of Human Rights in which he said that “[t]here is 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 emphasizes that these criminal charges “often constitute reprisals against those who cooperate with international institutions.”

By hosting the European Games, organized under the auspices of the European Olympic Committees (EOC), Azerbaijan’s government hopes to boost Azerbaijan’s global standing. But throwing so many human rights defenders and journalists behind bars does just the opposite. Moreover, and a point the EOC should be worried about, it goes against the letter and spirit of the Olympic Charter’s principles on press freedoms and human dignity.

Human rights defenders like Rasul, Intigam, Leyla, Khadija, Emin and others were seen as “spoilers” in the government’s image-branding exercise who deserved to be silenced. This time Baku decided not to take the chance that they would tarnish the government’s image at a time when the country was in the spotlight of the European Games. But word is getting out. It’s hard to keep a crackdown of this magnitude a secret from the rest of the world.

The European Union is bound by its own rules to put human rights at the core of its relationship with Azerbaijan, and has been predictably struggling to develop a legal framework for its relationships with the oil-rich Caspian country. But its resolve to do so appears to be waning, as Baku makes it abundantly clear that it is not interested in benefits the EU has to offer, such as free trade and visa liberalization, if they have to be linked to comprehensive reforms.

Now more than ever, Azerbaijan’s international partners need to up their game. European leaders should make their participation in the Baku Games opening ceremony conditional on the immediate release of Azerbaijan’s wrongfully imprisoned human rights defenders and journalists. Europe should not be complicit in Azerbaijan’s crackdown.

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