Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli is brought to the court after he has been abducted in Georgia and forcibly taken to neighboring Azerbaijan where he was detained in custody. 31 May, 2017. 

© 2017 Azadliq Radiosu/RFERL
(Berlin) – The Azerbaijani government sentenced at least 25 journalists and political and youth activists to long prison terms in politically motivated, unfair trials in 2017, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2018.

Draconian laws and regulations on nongovernmental organizations made it almost impossible for independent groups to fund and carry out their work. In a violent campaign, police arrested and ill-treated dozens of gay men and transgender women to coerce bribes and other information. Torture and ill-treatment in custody with impunity is common, and legal changes reduced the number of lawyers willing to take politically sensitive cases.

“Over the past year, Azerbaijani authorities have sustained a concerted assault on government critics, threatening the survival of independent activism in the country,” said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus director at Human Rights Watch. “Azerbaijan should end the crackdown, release everyone who has been wrongly imprisoned, and allow independent groups to function without undue interference.”

In the 643-page World Report, its 28th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that political leaders willing to stand up for human rights principles showed that it is possible to limit authoritarian populist agendas. When combined with mobilized publics and effective multilateral actors, these leaders demonstrated that the rise of anti-rights governments is not inevitable.

Those imprisoned in 2017 include: Mehman Huseynov, a prominent journalist and blogger, sentenced in March to two years in prison for allegedly defaming the staff of a police station after he publicized the abuse he suffered in their custody; Elgiz Gahraman, a youth activist, who was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison on bogus drug-related charges; and several members of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, including its deputy chair, Gozel Bayramli, who was detained in May at the border with neighboring Georgia, are facing spurious smuggling charges. In May, unidentified people abducted a journalist and political activist, Afgan Mukhtarli, in Georgia and illegally took him to Azerbaijan, where he was sentenced in January to six years’ imprisonment on bogus charges, including unlawful border crossing and smuggling.

Dozens of journalists and activists convicted in politically motivated trials in past years remained in prison. Among them is Ilgar Mammadov, leader of the pro-democracy opposition movement Republican Alternative (REAL), imprisoned since February 2013. He has not been released despite a 2014 European Court of Human Rights judgment finding his imprisonment illegal. The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers has repeatedly demanded Mammadov’s release, and in October triggered unprecedented legal proceedings against Azerbaijan for its failure to release Mammadov.

Authorities also stifled critical media. In May, claiming national security threats, authorities permanently blocked prominent independent and opposition media outlets’ websites, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

In September, authorities detained dozens of people presumed to be gay or bisexual, as well as transgender women, on dubious disobedience charges. Police ill-treated many to coerce bribes and information about other gay men. Following unfair trials, they were either sentenced to up to 30 days in detention or released after they paid a fine. Legislative amendments that went into effect in December banned lawyers without bar membership from representing clients in courts. The move is likely to further reduce the number of lawyers willing to take on politically sensitive cases. Observers have criticized the Azerbaijani Bar Association for lack of independence and its arbitrary powers to deny admissions of new members. In November, a prominent human rights lawyer, Yalchin Imanov, was disbarred for publicizing the beating of one of his clients in a prison.

The United States, the European Union, and Azerbaijan’s other bilateral and international partners criticized the government’s targeting of critics, but have not effectively leveraged their relationships with the government to secure meaningful rights improvements. The EU started negotiations for a new comprehensive partnership agreement with Azerbaijan despite failing to secure real human rights reforms.