European Union and Azerbaijan officials will meet in Brussels this week for their annual bilateral consultation on human rights.
It will be their first encounter since the February parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan, which were marred by widespread reports of electoral violations. Leading opposition figures, including Ilgar Mammadov, chair of the opposition REAL party, and Rasul Jafarov, a prominent human rights activist, who both spent years in politically motivated imprisonment, were barred from running.
A few days after the election, authorities rounded up several activists and opposition candidates on their way to a rally to contest the dubious election results, and abandoned them hundreds of kilometers away from Baku, often in the middle of nowhere.
The release in March last year of some 50 unjustly detained activists may have led some people to believe that Azerbaijan’s government was ready for reform. But this wasn’t the case: dozens of journalists and members of the political opposition remain jailed on politically-motivated charges.
Others continue to face arbitrary and disproportionate travel bans, like the investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who was jailed from December 2014 to May 2016 in retaliation for her journalistic work and is still not allowed to travel abroad. The European Court of Human Rights on February 27, 2020 handed down a damning judgment finding Azerbaijan had committed multiple and serious violations of human rights law in its treatment of Ismayilova.
As the EU and Azerbaijan are discussing closer ties, the EU should press Azerbaijan to let civil society groups to operate freely in the country. Azerbaijan’s laws are among the most restrictive in the region and make it almost impossible for independent groups to receive foreign funding – even from EU sources – to carry out their work.
Azerbaijan also stifles critical media, blocks prominent independent websites, and interferes with the work of independent lawyers by initiating disciplinary sanctions or disbarring them.
The release of several political detainees last year shows that pressure can work. But a closer partnership between Brussels and Baku will only benefit the people of Azerbaijan if the country’s leadership genuinely starts respecting human rights. It should start by releasing unjustly and arbitrarily detained critics, lifting travel bans, and letting independent groups operate freely. That’s the message that many Azerbaijanis want to hear from the EU.