Elchin Abdullayev was an election observer in Baku in October 2003 when he was arrested for compiling evidence of election violations and openly protesting against them. He was thrown in jail and tortured so badly that he had to be hospitalized.

Elchin Abdullayev, human rights activist in Azerbaijan

Elchin Abdullayev

This ordeal motivated him to work with various activist groups, including the Committee Against Torture in Azerbaijan. He also established his own Democratic Institutions and Human Rights union in 2007, to protect human rights and offer legal support to nongovernmental groups in Azerbaijan.

Between 2009 and 2014, Elchin helped register over 100 organizations with Azerbaijan’s Justice Ministry, a burdensome and restrictive process. He also assisted lawyers submitting multiple cases of alleged human rights violations to the European Court on Human Rights (ECtHR).

But things took a turn for the worse in 2014, when the authorities started an investigation against foreign donors and interrogated Elchin. In August, feeling threatened with arrest, he decided to leave the country.  On October 20, 2015 the Department for Investigation of Grave Crimes started a criminal investigation against Abdullayev personally, accusing him of amassing large amounts of money through illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion. The authorities opened a criminal investigation into his organization too, and some of Abdullayev’s staff were forced to make statements against him to help the investigation. The authorities froze his personal and business bank accounts, forcing the organization to shut down its projects. The investigation was temporarily suspended when the authorities couldn’t locate him. But Abdullayev has never received official confirmation that the investigation against him has ended.

He believes the real reason behind the investigation was his active involvement in civil society and in particular his influence within the coalition of nongovernmental groups for the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international initiative that promotes good governance of resource-rich countries by fostering open public debate about how oil, gas, and mining revenues are used. Abdullayev’s assistance was critical to many of the independent groups involved in the coalition that displeased the authorities by calling for accountability in Azerbaijan’s oil industry. The government has increasingly used prosecution to intimidate and silence human rights activists.

Since leaving Azerbaijan, Abdullayev has been living in Germany and continues his work by advising groups in Azerbaijan about how to register and how to file a case with the ECtHR if their registration is rejected. Abdullayev hopes that the situation in Azerbaijan will improve so that he can return to continue his important work to protect civic space in Azerbaijan. But that won’t happen without pressure from key international bodies. In Abdullayev’s words, “International organizations are our only hope and we become hopeless when we don’t see support from them for our situation.”

Recommendations

  • The government should restore an environment in which independent groups can operate freely and speak out openly, including about government transparency and accountability.
  • The government should stop using prosecution to harass activists and drop all criminal charges against them.