(Berlin) – The Azerbaijani government’s unrelenting crackdown is decimating the country’s once vibrant community of independent nongovernmental organizations and media, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2016.

Courts have sentenced leading human rights defenders and other government critics to long prison terms in politically motivated, unfair trials. Dozens more face harassment and prosecution, and the authorities have denied entry to international human rights monitors and journalists. The crackdown escalated in 2015 and continued as Baku hosted the first European Games in June. Azerbaijan’s international partners struggled to find a unified response to the crackdown.

Members of Journalists Without Borders protest against Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev during his visit to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in front of the Chancellery in Berlin, January 21, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

“The government’s crackdown in Azerbaijan is unprecedented in the country’s post-Soviet history,” said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus director at Human Rights Watch. “Although the government is opening the country for international sporting and other events, it’s closing the country to human rights scrutiny.”

In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.

Among those handed prison sentences ranging from six to eight-and-a-half years are the human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, the veteran human rights defenders Leyla and Arif Yunus, the prominent investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, and the human rights campaigner Rasul Jafarov. Others imprisoned on politically motivated charges include the Azadlig columnist Seymur Haziyev, and opposition party activists Siraj and Faraj Kerimlis, and Murad Adilov.  Taleh Khasmammadov, a human rights activist, was sentenced to three years.

In December, an appeal court released the Yunuses on five years probation because of their serious health ailments.

But Ilgar Mammadov, a political analyst, and Tofig Yagublu, a journalist, remained in prison, despite the European Court of Human Rights finding that their detentions are unlawful. Anar Mammadli, who headed an independent monitoring group, is serving a five-and-a-half-year sentence.

In addition to banning several international monitors and journalists from entering the country during 2015, the government forced the closure of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE)’s Baku office. The OSCE for the first time refused to send an observation mission to Azerbaijan’s parliamentary elections, citing the restrictions on the mission.

The European Union continues to negotiate a strategic partnership with Azerbaijan without preconditioning the talks on fundamental improvements in human rights or the release of jailed human rights defenders and journalists.

Several Council of Europe institutions spoke out strongly about the crackdown, but failed for the most part to impose any consequences. Finally in December, the Council of Europe’s secretary general, Thorbjørn Jagland, announced an inquiry into Azerbaijan’s implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights. He said it was triggered by European Court of Human Rights findings on “an arbitrary application of the law in Azerbaijan, notably in order to silence critical voices and limit freedom of speech.”

“The absence of serious international response to Azerbaijan’s draconian crackdown undermines European human rights standards,” Gogia said. “International entities, in particular the European Union and its members, should develop a consistent strategy to get the Azerbaijani government to carry out its human rights obligations.”