Human rights groups around the world call for Azerbaijan's defeat

May 5, 2009

To: The Member States of the General Assembly

Your Excellency,

On the occasion of the Human Rights Council elections on May 12, 2009, we, the undersigned international human rights organizations, wish to draw your attention to the deteriorating human rights situation in Azerbaijan and encourage your government not to vote for Azerbaijan.

During its 2006 campaign for election to the Council, Azerbaijan argued that, having been elected to the old Commission on Human Rights for the first time for the 2006-2008 term, it deserved the opportunity to serve in the Council. Azerbaijan pledged its “full[] commit[ment] to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms,” if elected.

In its pledges and commitments for 2009, the government of Azerbaijan claims that “[d]uring its membership on the Council, Azerbaijan continued to advance the protection of human rights at the national level.” Since 2006, however, the human rights situation in the country continues to be poor, and the government has demonstrated its unwillingness to address and prevent abuses.

I. Azerbaijan is failing to protect human rights

Contrary to Azerbaijan’s assertions of progress in the protection of human rights, human rights abuses continue and have in some cases increased in the past three years. As recently as June 2008, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) of which Azerbaijan is a member expressed “great concern about the deteriorating human rights situation in Azerbaijan.” (PACE Document No. 11627).

Intimidation and violence against independent and opposition media and human rights defenders

In a letter opposing Azerbaijan’s candidacy to the Council, members of Azeri civil society have already described the prosecution and harassment of individual journalists and rights defenders (available at http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/features/hrc2009/azerbaijan/letter.html). These are not isolated cases, but rather part of a trend of increasing harassment of civil society.

The government has a poor record on media freedom. It harasses and intimidates journalists, human rights defenders, and non-governmental organizations through the use of defamation and other criminal charges carrying long sentences and hefty civil penalties. Azerbaijan stands out among the Council of Europe member states as a country imprisoning journalists using criminal libel laws; 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. In April 2008, the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said that “Azerbaijani law enforcement agencies have recently fabricated accusations against several independent investigative journalists” and called on the government “to start the long due reform on decriminalization of speech offences.” The recent amnesty granted to two journalists who were serving prison sentences does not represent any significant improvement in the government’s record.

Azerbaijan ranks as 150 out of 173 countries on the 2008 Reporters Without Borders Worldwide Press Freedom Index Ranking. Violent attacks and harassment of journalists and activists are common and typically go unpunished. In February 2008, the UN special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression observed that a “worrying sequence of aggressions against media professionals and the lack of efficient and impartial investigations into them had a chilling effect on the freedom of expression in the country.” (A/HRC/7/14/Add.3). He found that “some sectors of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and of the judiciary appear to exert considerable pressure on the media.” In addition to journalists, he reported that “trade unionists, writers, students and in general human rights defenders are also under severe stress; in an oppressing atmosphere of conformism, they are often depicted as traitors and proxies of hostile forces.” In March 2005, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination similarly expressed concern “about the ability of civil society organizations, including organizations working to combat racial discrimination, to operate freely” (CERD/C/AZE/CO/4).

Repression of political opposition

Prior to the presidential election on October 15, 2008, freedom of assembly and media remained restricted, and opposition parties boycotted the election. The Azerbaijani authorities prevented the opposition from organizing demonstrations, banned foreign television and radio companies from using satellite equipment for live broadcasting, and suspended the registration of the Election Monitoring Center (EMC), the country’s most experienced non-partisan domestic election observer, resulting in its dissolution.

The government continues to detain political prisoners. In March 2009 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe appointed a special rapporteur on political prisoners in Azerbaijan, an indication of the lack of progress on this long-standing problem. In particular, government officials, businessmen, and opposition politicians arrested prior to the November 2005 parliamentary elections on allegations of attempting to overthrow the government remain in custody. Parts of their trials were completely closed and lawyers cited procedural violations, raising concerns about the trials’ fairness. Also incarcerated are three persons considered political prisoners by the Council of Europe arrested in connection with the 2003 presidential election.

Unfair and politically motivated trials and torture and ill-treatment in state custody

Lack of transparency and fairness in court proceedings and the strong influence exerted by the executive over the judiciary impair the right to a fair trial. Observers of trials reported numerous violations during allegedly politically motivated trials. The Council of Europe found that “[t]he serious dysfunctioning of the Azerbaijani judicial system has resulted in the creation of new cases of the last years in which persons find themselves charged and tried for offences, such as attempted coups d’Etat, offences against state security or terrorism, which do not always correspond to the facts.” (PACE Document No. 11627).

Prison conditions remain harsh, and torture and ill-treatment are widespread. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights noted the “overcrowding and sub-standard conditions in prisons in Azerbaijan which have give rise to a disproportionately high rate of tuberculosis and other health problems among prisoners.” (E/C.12/1/Add. 104). In 2003, the Committee Against Torture expressed its concern over the “numerous ongoing allegations of torture and ill-treatment in police facilities and temporary detention facilities, as well as in remand centres and in prisons” and Azerbaijan’s reported failure to investigate and prosecute such allegations. (CAT A/58/44). In 2006, the Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed further concern over information that children “are often subjected to ill-treatment, especially at the moment of arrest or during the first days of pretrial detention.” (CRC/C/AZE/CO/2). According to the Council of Europe, in 2008, “[n]umerous cases of ill-treatment and allegations of torture by law-enforcement officials during police custody or pre-trial investigations, as well as in the army, for the purpose of extracting confessions or obtaining incriminating statements by witnesses, continue[d] to be reported.” (PACE Document No. 11627).

A full record of abuses is posted on our coalition website at: www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/features/hrc2009/azerbaijan/index.html

II. Don’t Vote for Azerbaijan this Year

To re-elect Azerbaijan based on its record of the last three years would weaken the Human Rights Council and indicate the international community is unconcerned with the poor human rights situation in Azerbaijan. To reject its candidacy would show that U.N. members are serious about the membership standards they established for the Council, and bring new attention to the violations in Azerbaijan and hope and support to the victims of abuse. We therefore ask you not to vote for Azerbaijan on May 12.

Sincerely,

African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies (ACDHRS) (The Gambia)
African Democracy Forum (Africa Region)
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) (Thailand)
Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) (China)
Bahrain Center for Human Rights (Bahrain)
Democracy Coalition Project (United States)
East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (Uganda)
Educational Society of Malopolska (MTO) (Poland)
Fondation Humanus (Cameroon)
Freedom House (United States)
Human Rights Watch (United States)
Justice and Peace Netherlands (Netherlands)
Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center, A.C. (Center Prodh) (Mexico)
People in Need (Czech Republic)