This submission, prepared to feed into the upcoming European Neighbourhood Policy Action Plan progress report on Azerbaijan, summarizes Human Rights Watch’s concerns with respect to a number of areas where believe government action is not in line with the ENP Action Plan’s priority area 2 and 3 for Azerbaijan: Strengthening democracy in the country, including through fair and transparent electoral process; and strengthening the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law, in compliance with international commitments of Azerbaijan.

Our concerns fall into two broad areas--deteriorating media freedoms, particularly in the lead up to the presidential election, and torture. We will propose concrete and measurable reform steps the Azerbaijani government should take to address these problems. We believe the Commission can play a crucial role in helping to resolve these problems by making the proposed reforms part of its ENP Action Plan implementation process with the Azerbaijani government.

Deteriorating media freedoms
Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned that the Azerbaijani government has used libel, defamation and other criminal charges to intimidate independent and opposition journalists, some of whom have also been physically attacked by unknown assailants. This goes directly against the ENP Action Plan recommendation to the Azerbaijani authorities to “amend the criminal code to abolish or alleviate the provisions relating to defamation or libel cases.”

Deteriorating media freedoms in the country undermine the ENP recommendation that the government ensure “fair and transparent electoral processes.” As Azerbaijan heads into presidential elections, this issue is becoming more crucial.

By the end of 2007, nine journalists were behind bars for what appeared to be politically motivated defamation and other criminal charges. Although five journalists have been released on December 28 as a result of presidential pardon decree, four others remain in prison. They are:

  • Eynulla Fatullayev, the outspoken founder and editor-in-chief of two newspapers – Realny Azerbaijan and Gundelik Azerbaijan – who was convicted in October 2007 for fomenting terrorism and other dubious criminal charges and sentenced to eight and a half years in prison . His sentence was upheld by the Baku Appellate Court on January 16. The terrorism charges derived from an article Fatullayev had written arguing that the government’s Iran policy might make Azerbaijan vulnerable to attack from Iran and speculating what several targets for attack might be. Such expression is legitimate political commentary, and is speech that is protected under article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Six months earlier Fatuallayev was sentenced to two and a half years in prison on charges of libel and insult for an internet posting, which he denied to have written. Both newspapers, which had the largest circulations among print outlets in the country, were effectively shut down in May 2007, after Emergency Ministry and National Security Ministry personnel evicted staff from the papers’ premises, confiscated computer hard drives, and sealed their offices shut.

  • Mirza Sakit, a reporter and satirist for the daily Azadlyg, who is serving a three year prison sentence on equally dubious charges of narcotics possession;

  • Ganimed Zahid, editor-in-chief of Azadlyg who has been in pretrial custody since November 2007 for spurious hooliganism charges; and

  • Mushfig Husseinov, a Bizim Yol newspaper journalist who is in pretrial custody awaiting trial on questionable extortion charges, which local NGOs believe were the result of entrapment.

At least half of the journalists imprisoned in Azerbaijan in the past two years were convicted on charges of criminal libel or defamation. Azerbaijan stands out among the Council of Europe member states for imprisoning journalists for libel; almost all others refrain from doing so because it contravenes the right to freedom of the press and freedom of expression guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights. Although the release of some journalists in December was a welcome step, the Azerbaijani government should be urged to immediately release the remaining journalists and take a number of other resolute steps to show its commitment to freedom of expression.

One key area of Human Rights Watch concern is that the Azerbaijani government has failed to conclusively investigate numerous reports of violence and threats of violence against opposition and independent journalists. In April 2007 unknown assailants attacked Realni Azerbaijan’s Uzeir Jafarov, who sustained serous injuries. At least two other jounalists, Hakimeldostu Mehdiev and Suhayla Gamberova, were hospitalized with injuries they sustained following assaults in 2007 related to their work.

  • We hope to see the Commission use the opportunity of the ENP Action Plan Progress Report to emphasize that the Azerbaijani government should repeal the criminal libel law, as it committed to doing under the ENP Action Plan priorities. As a minimum, interim step, it should announce a moratorium on further use of it. Civil remedies with a reasonable monetary cap, not criminal prosecutions, should be available in cases of libel.

  • The government should also take immediate steps to conclusively investigate all allegations of assaults against journalists and hold perpetrators accountable.

Torture and inhuman treatment
Torture remains a widespread and largely unacknowledged problem in Azerbaijan. Although the government has invested in training police staff on human rights norms, these efforts are unlikely to produce lasting results if they are not matched by rigorous prosecution of abusive officers. Out of 11 cases the government had investigated as of mid-2007, 10 dealt with suspicious deaths in custody that had occurred in the last few years. Of these cases, six were dismissed for lack of evidence, two were still pending, and three officers were convicted for such minor offences as negligence and abuse of office, receiving prison sentences from one to three years.

Emblematic of the torture problem is the June 2007 murder conviction of three teenage boys based on confessions and incriminating statements that they stated repeatedly, including at trial, had been coerced under severe beatings and other forms of torture.

  • It is important for the European Commission to incorporate in the progress report the need for the Azerbaijani government to swiftly and conclusively investigate any allegations of torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement officials as well as hold the perpetrators accountable.