(New York) – United States officials should urge Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, during his visit to Washington to free unjustly imprisoned government critics and political activists. They should also urge Aliyev to lift restrictions on activists recently freed from prison and reform laws that severely curtail fundamental freedoms.
Aliyev will participate in the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., from March 31 to April 1, 2016. It is his first visit to the United States since 2012.
“Because Azerbaijan is such an important partner for the US, it’s all the more reason the US government should lend its voice to help secure freedom for government critics,” said Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “The Obama administration and members of Congress shouldn’t miss this crucial opportunity to encourage Aliyev to end the country’s human rights crackdown.”
On March 17, Aliyev signed a pardon, freeing 148 prisoners, including 13 journalists, human rights defenders, and activists who had been prosecuted on politically motivated charges. Courts freed two more people by converting their original jail time to suspended sentences. Two other human rights defenders were freed in late 2015, also following similar conversion of their sentences.
Those convicted on politically motivated charges who were freed had been targeted in a sweeping two-year crackdown on human rights defenders and other government critics, including independent journalists, bloggers, political activists, and independent nongovernmental organizations.
Other journalists and activists remain behind bars, also following convictions on unfounded and politically motivated charges, ranging from hooliganism to tax evasion. Among them is Khadija Ismayilova, the country’s top investigative reporter, who worked for U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In September 2015 a court sentenced Ismayilova to seven years and six months in prison on spurious charges of tax evasion and other economic crimes.
Ilgar Mammadov, a prominent political analyst and one of Azerbaijan’s few alternative political voices, has been unjustly imprisoned since 2013, despite repeated calls by the Council of Europe, Europe’s top intergovernmental human rights body of which Azerbaijan is a member, for the government to free him.
The convictions against the released activists remain in force. The two who were freed in late 2015, Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif, urgently need to travel abroad to seek medical care for chronic and serious health conditions that worsened during their approximately 16 months behind bars. But a court recently refused their appeal and they remain in Azerbaijan under a travel ban that is part of their suspended sentence.
“The recent prisoner releases have been the first good news from Azerbaijan in a long time,” Prasow said. “The government should now free everyone who has been unjustly imprisoned on politically motivated charges, quash the criminal cases, and allow everyone to travel freely, especially for much-needed medical treatment.”
In recent years, the Azerbaijani authorities have adopted a raft of laws that severely restrict the operations of independent groups, hampering their ability to obtain official registration and to seek foreign funding, and preventing many from operating effectively. Most recently, in February, Justice Ministry published new rules granting the ministry the authority to conduct largely unrestricted inspections into the activities of non-governmental groups. In December 2014, the authorities also raided and sealed the offices of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, restricting the station’s ability to broadcast.
The laws, together with criminal investigations against a number of groups and foreign donors, have paralyzed many independent groups in Azerbaijan, Human Rights Watch said. Although, in a positive step, the authorities halted a number of investigation into nongovernmental organizations in March, existing legislative restrictions continue to hinder their ability to operate.
Azerbaijan is an oil and gas-rich post-Soviet state. It has provided overflights and ground transportation for US and other NATO troops to Afghanistan, and significant intelligence and security-related information to the United States. An early supporter of the US response to the September 11th attacks, Azerbaijan received and retains “most favored nation” trade status.
“Of course we are elated that some of those unjustly imprisoned are now free,” Prasow said. “But as long as repressive laws remain in place, the government could easily give another spin to the revolving door, and other activists could be arrested.”