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The October 2003 presidential elections in Azerbaijan—the first since Azerbaijan became a member of the Council of Europe—were supposed to herald a new era of democracy and respect for human rights in the country. As the ten-year presidency of Heidar Aliev began to draw to a close, many in Azerbaijan—buoyed by visible, significant support by the international community for free elections in the country—began to hope that after years of political repression, they would finally have the chance to participate in free and fair elections.

These hopes were crushed by the government’s determination to ensure the succession of President Aliev’s son, Ilham Aliev, to the presidency. The pre-election environment was manipulated to ensure that the opposition could not campaign effectively, with police violence and arbitrary arrests serving to intimidate the population and opposition supporters. On voting day, the government carried out a well-organized campaign of fraud throughout the country to ensure a victory for Ilham Aliev, right in front of the largest international election monitoring team ever deployed in the country. When post-election violence erupted, the government responded with brutal and excessive force, unleashing its security forces to beat hundreds of demonstrators unconscious, and killing at least one protester.

Today, Azerbaijan is experiencing its gravest human rights crisis of the past decade. In the aftermath of the election, nearly one thousand people were arrested—among them opposition leaders, local opposition party members, activists of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who supported the opposition, journalists, and election officials and observers who challenged the fraud. Serious beatings at police stations were routine, and many opposition leaders held at the Organized Crime Unit (OCU) of the Ministry of Interior endured torture, including through electric shocks, severe beatings, and threats of rape.

By mid-January 2004, more than one hundred opposition leaders and supporters remained in detention, facing charges that could lead to up to twelve years of imprisonment. More than one hundred opposition supporters and their relatives have been fired from their jobs in retaliation for their political affiliation and activities, and opposition activists throughout Azerbaijan face constant police harassment. The government of Azerbaijan is attempting to crush the opposition with few attempts to hide it.

Government repression of opposition politicians and supporters violates Azerbaijan's obligations as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR),[1] and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR).[2] Opposition activists and supporters have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention,[3] torture and other mistreatment,[4] and lack of access to counsel among other due process violations.[5] Abuses related to the election campaign and its aftermath include violation of the rights to freedom of assembly,[6] expression,[7] and to participate in public affairs.[8] The government's actions also contravene its commitments under the Copenhagen document of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE),[9] which elaborates standards for the conduct of free and fair elections, and its obligations as a member state of the Council of Europe.

This report documents the pre-election, election-day, and post-election violations of human rights in Azerbaijan. The findings of this report are based on two missions to Azerbaijan, the first from September 29 to October 18, 2003, and the second from November 11 to November 25, 2003. During these missions, Human Rights Watch researchers conducted interviews with more than 200 victims and witnesses of human rights abuses. Research was conducted in the capital, Baku, as well as in cities and villages around the country, including Ali Bairamli, Gotchay, Ganja, Jalilabad, Khajmaz, Lankaran, Masalli, Mingechevir, Saatli, Salian, Sekhi, Sumgait, and Zagatala, and through phone interviews with many other areas. The report does not address human rights violations in Nakhchivan, an enclave of Azerbaijan wedged between Armenia and Iran, because safe access to that area was not available. However, reports from local activists consistently suggest that the situation in Nakhchivan is even more severe than in other areas of Azerbaijan.

Human Rights Watch calls on the government immediately to release those opposition supporters who have been arbitrarily arrested, to thoroughly investigate acts of torture alleged by those arrested in the aftermath of the election, and to conduct a special investigation of police units, particularly the OCU, which have been implicated in torture in the post-election period. Azerbaijan is in a profound political crisis created by its flagrant violations of international law and the rights of its citizens. We urge the government to undertake political reforms that will ensure free and fair elections in the future. The absolute power of the presidency must give way to a more balanced political system, in which parliament, the judiciary, and municipal authorities are granted real power, which can check abuses of authority by the presidency.

The international community needs to intensify pressure on Azerbaijan to improve its human rights record. Immediate action is needed from the government to restore the public confidence in the country’s political system, by establishing, with international cooperation, a truly independent investigation into election abuses. Allegations of torture and police abuse have to be investigated and prosecuted, and those dismissed persons allowed to return to work. Arbitrary arrests must stop, and opposition leaders who have been arbitrarily detained must be released.

1 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976. Azerbaijan ratified the ICCPR in 1992.

2 European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR), (ETS No. 5), 213 U.N.T.S. 222, entered into force September 3, 1953. Azerbaijan ratified the ECHR in 2002.

3 ICCPR Article 9 and ECHR Article 5.

4 ICCPR Article 7 and ECHR Article 3.

5 ICCPR Article 14 and ECHR Article 5.

6 ICCPR Article 21 and ECHR Article 11.

7 ICCPR Article 19 and ECHR Article 10.

8 ICCPR Article 25.

9 Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Document of the Copenhagen Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimensions of the CSCE, Copenhagen, June 29, 1990 [online], (retrieved January 6, 2004).

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January 2004