Rasul Jafarov was compiling a list of victims arrested in Azerbaijan on politically motivated grounds, whose release he planned to press for, when he himself was arrested in August 2014.
 

Human rights defender Rasul Jafarov at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly in Baku in June 2014. 

©2014 Aziz Karimov

Jafarov, the founder and chair of the independent group the Human Rights Club, was prosecuted in the country’s Grave Crimes Court and the following year convicted of tax evasion, abuse of power, illegal business activities, and embezzlement – all politically motivated charges. The charges stemmed from Jafarov running a non-governmental organization without a state registration, ignoring the fact that the authorities had repeatedly and arbitrarily refused to register the Human Rights Club. The case is now pending at the European Court of Human Rights.

The court sentenced Jafarov to six-and-a-half years in prison. He was given early release in March 2016 along with 12 other journalists, human rights defenders, and activists, but his conviction was left standing.

Still living in Baku, Jafarov continues to campaign and work to improve human rights in the country, despite being under risk of re-arrest.

“We are preparing a report about political prisoners in Azerbaijan,” he told Human Rights Watch. This despite the fact that, three weeks ago he was invited to the Prosecutor General’s office for questioning – he was part of a group protesting proposed amendments to the country’s constitution which further expanded presidential powers, and they had printed leaflets about it. While there, he was told the same case he was arrested for in 2014 was still open – in other words, that the government could call him in for questioning or even imprison him at any time.

Jafarov’s bank account is still frozen in relation to that case, even though the investigation is reportedly over.

“It is like a threat,” he said. “‘If you don’t stop we can use it against you again.’”

Jafarov’s Human Rights Club spearheaded several campaigns against politically motivated prosecutions in Azerbaijan, including the “Sing for Democracy” campaign in the lead up to the Eurovision Song Contest in May 2012, and “Art for Democracy”, which creates videos and interactive pieces promoting human rights in the country.

He was first motivated to start campaigning when he saw his friends and family suffering because of corruption in the country. They had to pay a bribe to different state institutions just to keep their property, even though it belonged to them.

“I saw my friends, when they spoke about the reality in the country, they could be beaten, detained, or threatened in a different way,” he said. “I realized that it could happen to anyone in the future.”

“When the Azerbaijani government started to receive oil money and its income increased, things started getting worse. It started to control everything, it arrested people and detained people.”

Now, Jafarov wants the rest of the world to start paying attention to what is happening in his country, and he hopes other countries aren’t distracted by the fanfare generated by oil-rich Azerbaijan when it hosts international sporting events and launches glitzy tourism campaigns

“We shouldn’t ignore human rights violations, corruption and negative trends in Azerbaijan.”

Since its independence from the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan is more authoritarian than it has been in 25 years. As the country’s oil revenues decline, the government crackdown on civil society organizations and activists has sharpened. On 26 October, the Board of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international initiative promoting good governance by resource-rich countries, will decide whether Azerbaijan should be further sanctioned for falling short of commitments it has made under the initiative. These profiles, a joint initiative with Publish What You Pay, highlight how the crackdown has affected activists, including those involved in the EITI. They underscore why strong action is urgently needed to protect activists in Azerbaijan.