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(Berlin) – German officials should press President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan during his visit to Berlin to free unjustly imprisoned government critics and political activists, Human Rights Watch said today. German officials should also urge Aliyev to lift restrictions on activists recently freed from prison and reform laws that severely curtail fundamental freedoms.

Aliyev will be in Germany for an official visit on June 7-8, 2016, to meet German officials and open the German-Azerbaijan Economic Forum, organized jointly by the German Ministry of Economic Affairs and German-Azerbaijani Chamber of Commerce.

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel address a news conference at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany on January 21, 2015.  © 2015 Reuters

“Aliyev’s visit provides a crucial opportunity for German officials to lend their voices to justice,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “German officials should encourage President Aliyev to end the country’s human rights crackdown and stop muzzling dissenters.”

Following pressure by Azerbaijan’s bilateral and multilateral partners, including Germany, the Azerbaijan authorities have, since March, released 17 human rights defenders, journalists, and activists who had been prosecuted and sentenced to long prison terms on politically motivated charges. Most recently, on May 25, the Supreme Court of Azerbaijan released the award-winning investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, after converting her seven-and-a-half-year prison term to a three-and-a-half-year suspended term.

Those freed in recent months had been targeted and jailed in the government’s sustained and pervasive crackdown on dissent. Since 2013, dozens of human rights defenders, political and civic activists, journalists, and bloggers have been arrested or imprisoned on politically motivated charges, prompting others to flee the country or go into hiding. In June 2015, the Bundestag adopted a resolution on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, criticizing the crackdown and calling on the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release those unjustly imprisoned.

The convictions of the released activists remain in force. Furthermore, five were released on suspended sentences, and three of those remain vulnerable to being returned to custody and their freedom of movement and ability to leave the country have been curtailed. In April, the authorities allowed the veteran human rights defender Leyla Yunus, and her husband, Arif Yunus, to travel abroad for medical treatment, as their fragile health had deteriorated precipitously in custody.

Other journalists and activists remain behind bars, following similar politically motivated charges, ranging from hooliganism to tax evasion. Among them is Ilgar Mammadov, a prominent political analyst who has been unjustly imprisoned since 2013, though the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers has repeatedly ordered his release to carry out a May 2014 European Court of Human Rights ruling on his case. The Council of Europe is Europe’s top intergovernmental human rights body, and Azerbaijan is a member.

Azerbaijan has a history of using trumped-up drug and other charges to intimidate government critics, and of complete impunity for abuses in custody, Human Rights Watch said.

Seymur Hezi, a leading columnist with the opposition paper Azadlig (Liberty) and an anchor for the Turkey-based pro-opposition television channel Azerbaijan Saati (Azerbaijan Hour), was arrested in August 2014, after he was assaulted, and has remained in prison ever since. He was later sentenced to five years on trumped-up hooliganism charges.

Ilkin Rustemzade, a blogger and member of NIDA youth group, was sentenced to eight years in prison in May 2014 on charges of organizing mass disorders and hooliganism. Prior to his arrest Rustemzade used social media to call attention to the deaths in the army of soldiers in non-combat situations.

At least 14 political activists from the opposition Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan are also in custody.

Azerbaijani authorities maintain a revolving door policy of arresting and jailing other government critics even as some are released, Human Rights Watch said.

On May 10, the authorities detained two youth activists – Giyas Ibrahimov, 22, and Bayram Mammadov, 21 – on suspicion of painting graffiti on a statue. They were charged with drug-related offenses and sent to pre-trial custody for four months. Both activists made credible allegations of abuse in police custody, but no effective investigation followed.

“In recent months, Azerbaijani authorities have taken some steps to rectify the results of the pervasive government crackdown on dissent,” Williamson said. “However, the authorities should release everyone in jail on politically motivated charges and allow them to continue their work free of intimidation and harassment.”

Azerbaijan has also adopted repressive laws on nongovernmental groups and taken criminal and administrative actions against many independent groups. 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 the authorities halted a number of investigations into nongovernmental organizations in March, existing legislative restrictions continue to hinder their ability to operate.

“German officials should impress upon President Aliyev that the quality of bilateral relations depends on Azerbaijan’s fulfillment of its international obligations,” Williamson said. “Releasing unjustly jailed activists and amending repressive laws should be first few steps on that road.”

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