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(Berlin) – The Azerbaijani government sustained a broad crackdown on government critics during 2016, locking up dozens of people and enforcing laws that paralyze independent groups, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2017.

In the past year, authorities freed 17 human rights defenders, journalists, and political activists imprisoned on politically motivated charges. But at least 24 government critics remained wrongfully imprisoned, including political activists and bloggers arrested in 2016. Restrictive laws prevent independent groups from operating independently.

“The government’s crackdown is threatening the survival of independent activism in Azerbaijan,” said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus director at Human Rights Watch. “It will take far more than the release of a handful of activists to restore free speech, and the government is continuing its assault on critics.”

In the 687-page World Report, its 27th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that a new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights as an impediment to the majority will. For those who feel left behind by the global economy and increasingly fear violent crime, civil society groups, the media, and the public have key roles to play in reaffirming the values on which rights-respecting democracy has been built.

Among those who remain behind bars is Ilgar Mammadov, leader of the pro-democracy opposition movement Republican Alternative (REAL), despite the 2014 European Court of Human Rights decision on his case and repeated demands by the Council of Europe to release him. Others include Ilkin Rustamzadeh, a youth activist; Murad Adilov, of the opposition Azerbaijani Popular Front Party (APFP); Seymur Hazi, a journalist; and Abdul Adilov, a blogger.

In August alone, authorities arrested eight political activists on a range of false, politically motivated charges. Four were released following misdemeanor convictions, and four face criminal charges. Three of them remain in custody.

The authorities also targeted opposition APFP activists, at least 12 of whom were either on trial or serving prison terms in 2016.

The convictions of the released activists have not been quashed, and some former detainees continued to face travel and work restrictions and risk detention if they resume their work. Some led nongovernmental groups, which remained closed.

Highly restrictive and punitive regulations on independent groups adopted in 2014 and 2015 make it almost impossible for independent groups to fund and carry out their work. While sweeping criminal investigations against some groups were lifted during 2016, the bank accounts of at least a dozen groups that worked on human rights and government accountability remain blocked. The groups suspended their work or operate in exile.

Although some of Azerbaijan’s international partners spoke out strongly about the crackdown, they did not impose any consequences. The European Union formally green-lighted negotiations for a new comprehensive partnership agreement without setting any human rights benchmarks for the opening of negotiations.

A notable exception was the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which declined to restore Azerbaijan’s full membership status in the organization because the government had not made satisfactory progress on meeting the initiative’s standards for fostering a free environment for independent groups. EITI gave the government four months to reform its overly restrictive laws on nongovernmental organizations and their funding, or face suspension.

International financial institutions such as the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development should refrain from financing extractive industries projects until the government has implemented the reforms outlined by EITI. They should also not provide direct budget support to the government until the authorities allow independent groups and individuals to meaningfully participate in crafting the country’s development agenda and freely share their views about public affairs.

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