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Azerbaijan’s human rights record: Shooting the messengers

International organisations and NGOs have traced the deterioration in Azerbaijan’s human rights record since the country regained its independence 1991. Their ability to do so relies heavily on the contribution of local human rights defenders, who put themselves at risk of intimidation, imprisonment and torture in doing so. Local observers have described the situation for journalists worsening under the rule of the current President, Ilham Aliyev, and there has been futher deterioriation in the ability of Azerbaijan’s citizens to assemble and express themselves freely since 2013. This current crackdown has included a concerted attack on the local human rights organisations the world relies on for news about Azerbaijan’s internal repression.

In May 2014, the European Court of Human Rights confirmed its ruling that the actual purpose of opposition politician Ilgar Mammadov’s arrest was to “silence or punish” him for criticising the government and therefore a violation of human rights. Azerbaijan, as a member of the Council of Europe since 2001, was told that it was obliged to release Mammadov at the same time as it assumed the rotating presidency of the body’s Council of Ministers.

The ability of the Council of Europe to challenge arbitrary detention in one of its own member states had been a matter of controversy for some time, with some observers arguing that Azerbaijan has managed to neuter the organisation through a policy of “caviar dipomacy.” In the event, notwithstanding the court judgment, Azerbaijan’s repression of domestic dissent actually worsened after the country took on the Council of Europe Presidency. Over the course of Summer 2014, journalists and activists were arrested on trumped up charges and independent NGOs faced office raids, their bank accounts being frozen and key personnel arrested.

In August 2014, human rights defenders within Azerbaijan published The List, a document profiling the 98 individuals the authors considered as political prisoners at that point in time. It is a mark of how far the crackdown had gone that many of the human rights defenders credited in the introduction for providing information and doing casework were themselves included in the tally of political prisoners.

In 2013, the Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety (IRFS), the press freedom organisation of which Emin Huseynov is the chair, produced a damning report into Azerbaijan’s multi-year failure to comply with the Council of Europe obligations. Called Opinion 222, the report was launched by Emin Huseynov in Strasbourg, and back home in Azerbaijan.

IRFS is one of several leading human rights organisations in Azerbaijan that the government has effectively put out of business in the past year. Together with the Media Rights Institute, the Democracy and Information Centre, the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre, the Human Rights Union, the Azerbaijani Lawyers’ Association, the Peace and Democracy Institute and others, these groups constitute the bedrock of the country’s human rights infrastructure. The crackdown has also resulted in the arrest of journalists – the case of Khadija Ismayilova received widespread attention but is not an isolated incident – opposition and online activists, most of whom are still being detained.

In its most recent survey of the situation in Azerbaijan in March 2015, Amnesty International concluded that:

[we have] documented a pattern of intensified harassment and intimidation of activists, journalists and human rights defenders by the Azerbaijani authorities in recent years. The latest arrests have effectively shut down all space for the expression of views that are in any way critical of the government. The current levels of repression of the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly mark the nadir of the country’s human rights record since independence. They stand at grotesque odds with the government’s attempt to market Azerbaijan internationally, notably through glossy advertising campaigns and glitzy sporting or cultural events, as a thriving, free and diverse country.

A short introduction to Azerbaijan

The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was established in 1918, it was the first democratic and secular republic in the Muslim world, but was incorporated into the Soviet Union only two years later. The country regained independence in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Like many of the post-Soviet successor states, however, it has not made a successful democratic transition. After two post-indendence years marked by  internal instability, an armed insurrection in June 1993 resulted in presidential powers being conferred on former First Secretary of the Azerbaijan Communist Party Heydar Aliev.

Aliev won questionable presidential elections in October 1993 and 1995 before power was transferred to his son Ilham Aliyev in 2003. Ilham Aliyev has remained in that post ever since and, in 2008, amended the Azeri constitution, allowing him to rule indefinitely. At the last presidential election in 2013, partial results appear to have been announced before the vote even took place.

In January 2010, an American diplomat stationed in the country offered some impressions of the country’s endemic corruption in a cable:

observers in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, often note that today’s Azerbaijan is run in a manner similar to the feudalism found in Europe during the Middle Ages: a handful of well connected families control certain geographic areas, as well as certain sectors of the economy. By and large, this seems to be the case, with general agreement among leading families to divide the spoils and not disturb one another’s areas of business or geographic control. The families also collude, using government mechanisms, to keep out foreign competitors, and entities such as the State Border Services, State Customs and tax authorities create barriers that only the best connected can clear. As a result, an economy already burgeoning with oil and gas revenues produces enormous opportunity and wealth for a small handful of players that form Azerbaijan’s elite.

In addition to enriching itself, Azerbaijan’s government is also using its considerable oil and gas wealth to stage international events that improve the perception of the country abroad. These range from the Eurovision Song Contest and Internet Governance Forum in 2012 to the inaugural IOC-supported European Games, which will take place in June 2015. Azerbaijan’s government is reportedly spending 7 billion GBP on this summer’s games alone.

President Aliyev repeatedly emphasises his country’s “western orientation” in foreign policy: the Southern Gas Corridor pipeline, currently under construction, will run through to Italy, connecting Caspian gas to Europe as an alternative to Russian gas supplies, and the country also allowed its territory to be used to supply US operations in Afghanistan. Several of the US State Department cables released by WikiLeaks show that Azerbaijani human rights defenders think Ilham Aliyev is not afraid of diplomatic pressure on his human rights record because of these foreign policy decisions.

the media representatives claim President Aliyev and other government insiders perceive that the political cost of clamping down on the media is minimal, as the GOAJ [Government of Azerbaijan] increasingly judges that Western states need Azerbaijan as much or more than Azerbaijan needs the West. The GOAJ also appears to see minimal domestic costs for keeping the media on a short leash, as there is little in the way of public clamor for a more vibrant media.