On two consecutive days this week Azerbaijan’s abysmal human rights record came under direct scrutiny – by the United Nations and the Council of Europe, one of Europe’s foremost human rights bodies. This focused high-level attention is unprecedented, and that is appropriate. Never in Azerbaijan’s 24 years of independence has there been a human rights crackdown as fierce and sweeping as the one under way.
Today 25 countries, led by Ireland, issued a joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council condemning the “systematic silencing of critical voices” in Azerbaijan, and calling for the “immediate and unconditional release” of human rights defenders, activists, and journalists.
And yesterday I was in Strasbourg as the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) debated the functioning of the country’s democratic institutions. One after another, parliamentarians took the floor to say “enough is enough,” and condemn the crackdown. They adopted a resolution urging Baku “to end the systemic harassment of those critical of the government,” and to “release those wrongfully detained.”
Both documents spoke for those who have been silenced in Azerbaijan.
Exactly a year ago, I listened in Strasbourg when Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, addressed the same assembly. He boldly kept repeating that all fundamental rights and freedoms are respected in his country, and called those who challenged him liars.
Hearing his belligerent tone, I feared for my colleagues in Azerbaijan. In the past year, all my worst fears came true. Almost all of them are now either behind bars, have left the country, or are in hiding.
Among those imprisoned are human rights defenders and activists who closely cooperated with the Council of Europe for many years, including the renowned human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, the human rights activists Rasul Jafarov and Leyla Yunus, and the investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova.
The authorities have brought unfounded or bogus criminal charges against dozens of other activists, bloggers, political activists, and journalists, convicting 35 in 2014 alone.
Both documents urged the Azerbaijani government to end the crackdown and release those wrongfully imprisoned, and the PACE resolution further urges the government to implement the European Court of Human Rights judgments, ensure independence of the judiciary, and stop reprisals against journalists, among other things. It remains to be seen if Azerbaijan will heed any of these recommendations.
The fact that PACE undertook the debate and adopted the resolution was extremely important for the Council of Europe’s institutional credibility and for those in Azerbaijan who had been silenced. But now it’s up to Azerbaijan’s international partners – especially countries that signed the Human Rights Council statement – to ensure that the Azerbaijani government heeds these calls.