(Berlin) – The Azerbaijani government has renewed its vicious crackdown on critics and independent groups, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The European Union and international financial institutions have a rare opportunity to insist on human rights reforms, as Azerbaijan actively seeks financial and other partnerships to offset a recent economic downturn.
The 75-page report, “Harassed, Imprisoned, Exiled: Azerbaijan’s Continuing Crackdown on Government Critics, Lawyers, and Civil Society,” documents the government’s concerted efforts to undermine civil society. Human Rights Watch found that in 2016, the authorities used false, politically motivated criminal and administrative charges to prosecute political activists, journalists, and others. The government has built a restrictive legal and policy framework to paralyze the work of independent groups. Lawyers willing to defend critics have faced retaliation and disbarment. Although the authorities released several human rights defenders and others in early 2016, many others remain in prison or fled into exile.
“With the release of some wrongfully imprisoned activists earlier this year, there were high hopes that Azerbaijan was turning a corner,” said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “But optimism is fading fast as the government relentlessly pursues critics and tries to shut down independent groups.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 90 human rights defenders, leaders of independent organizations, journalists, lawyers, and political party activists.
The severe drop in global oil prices in 2015 took a heavy toll on Azerbaijan’s petroleum export-dependent economy. The government seeks additional international financial investment from the World Bank and others for its extractive industries, including the Caspian Sea Shah Deniz Gas Field and the Southern Gas Corridor, to deliver gas from the Caspian to Europe.
The EU and Azerbaijan are about to embark on negotiating a new comprehensive partnership agreement to enhance existing political and economic ties.