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(Brussels) – European Union officials should press President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan to free unjustly imprisoned political activists, journalists, and other government critics, Human Rights Watch said today. EU officials should also urge Aliyev to end the crackdown on independent groups and allow them to operate without undue government interference.

President Aliyev will be in Brussels on February 6, 2017, to inaugurate talks on a new partnership agreement between Azerbaijan and the EU to enhance political and economic ties between them. He is set to meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Council Donald Tusk, and other top EU officials.

“Time and time again, the EU has praised courageous human rights defenders, pledging to ‘throw the EU’s full weight behind them,’” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. “As the EU and Azerbaijan forge a new era of cooperation, now is the time to make good on those EU promises and not sweep Aliyev’s crackdown on dissent, and basic human rights under the red carpet.”

President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev attends a news conference, Berlin, Germany, June 7, 2016.  © 2016 Reuters

In a joint letter signed by 76 human rights groups worldwide and sent to top EU officials, the groups said the EU should use the meetings with President Aliyev to secure concrete commitments for urgently needed rights reforms in Azerbaijan.

In recent years, the Azerbaijan government has made concerted efforts to restrict independent activism, critical journalism, and opposition political activity by imprisoning and harassing many activists, prominent human rights defenders, and journalists. Draconian laws and regulations impede the operation of independent groups and their ability to secure funding.

Following pressure by Azerbaijan’s international bilateral and multilateral partners, including the EU, in 2016, the Azerbaijani authorities released 17 human rights defenders, journalists, and political activists. They had been convicted on politically motivated charges, including narcotics and weapons possession, tax evasion, hooliganism, incitement, and even treason, and sentenced to long prison terms.

But in 2016 and 2017, the authorities have made dozens of new arrests of other activists and bloggers on spurious criminal, often drug-related, charges to prevent them from carrying out their legitimate work.

In late 2016, in one case, an Azerbaijani court sentenced Bayram Mammadov and Giyas Ibrahimov to 10 years in prison on false drug charges in retaliation for painting political graffiti on a statue of former President Heydar Aliyev. In January, Elgiz Gahraman was sentenced to five-and-a-half years on bogus drug-related criminal charges. All three are members of NIDA, a pro-democracy youth group advocating for peaceful change of government.

More than a dozen activists convicted in politically motivated trials between 2013 and 2015 remain in prison. Among them is Ilgar Mammadov, leader of the pro-democracy opposition movement Republican Alternative (REAL). The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers has repeatedly called for his release, in line with a 2014 European Court of Human Rights decision finding that Mammadov’s imprisonment was in retaliation for his criticism of the government.

None of the convictions of those released in 2016 were quashed and some face travel restrictions, including the award-winning investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, and the human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev. Others have fled the country fearing further politically motivated prosecutions.

Some of those released, as well as many nongovernmental groups, had to downsize significantly or halt their work, in the face of almost insurmountable bureaucratic hurdles to access independent funding.

In response to the crackdown on civil society, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a prominent international multi-stakeholder group that encourages better governance of resource-rich countries, downgraded Azerbaijan’s status in 2015 and declined to restore it in 2016. EITI gave Azerbaijan until its March 2017 board meeting to amend several laws governing the work of nongovernmental groups or face suspension.

In response, Azerbaijan’s Cabinet of Ministers issued new regulations for nongovernmental groups in January. The new regulations simplify some procedures for registration of foreign grants, but leave intact the authority to arbitrarily deny the groups’ registration. The superficial changes offer limited prospects for fundamentally improving the operating environment for independent groups, Human Rights Watch said.

The new framework for EU and Azerbaijan relations will replace the 1999 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which guided their bilateral relations in political dialogue, trade, investment, and economic, legislative, and cultural cooperation.

The EU’s engagement with Azerbaijan should be guided by Article 21 of the Lisbon Treaty, adhering to the principles of “democracy, the rule of law, the universality and indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms,” as well as by the commitments enshrined in the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders and the EU’s Strategic Framework for Human Rights and Democracy.

“Any negotiations with Azerbaijan should include clearly articulated EU expectations for concrete human rights improvements by Azerbaijan’s government, including the immediate and unconditional release of rights activists, political opposition members, and journalists,” Leicht said. “Deepening engagement without securing concrete rights improvements would signal to the people wrongfully imprisoned in Azerbaijan and to those bravely continuing their work in the face of government hostility that the EU has abandoned them.”

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