Azerbaijan: Council of Europe must speak up against crackdown on human rights defenders

Azerbaijan should refrain from using spurious criminal charges to put its critics behind bars, according to a new report by ARTICLE 19, launched at the Council of Europe, as part of the International Partnership Group on Azerbaijan.

In 2014 the Azerbaijani authorities unleashed a vicious attack on civil society, including those engaged in the protection of human rights. The report highlights the increase in the number of people imprisoned for expressing their critical opinions peacefully, whether on paper, on the Internet or on the streets. Independent non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the media or other critical voices offline and online are being removed from public life. 

The authorities should immediately and unconditionally release those detained or imprisoned for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, and not target those speaking uncomfortable truths, either at home or at international level, including at the Council of Europe.

"We are concerned that those raising the issue of political prisoners at the Council of Europe are specifically targeted, and such reprisals are incompatible with the human rights standards the Azerbaijani authorities claim to adhere to" said David Diaz-Jogeix, Director of Programmes of ARTICLE 19.

“The Council of Europe, the key human rights institution in Europe, needs to speak up and call for the immediate and unconditional release of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. With Azerbaijan as the chair of its Committee of Ministers, the integrity and accountability of the whole institution is at stake,” said Diaz-Jogeix.

The discrepancy between Azerbaijan’s chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and the country’s appalling record on human rights, particularly the right to freedom of expression, is a sad irony. In the international arena, the Azerbaijani government pretends to respect human rights, whereas it is clearly engaged in a campaign to repress any voices that expose violations of human rights, including those who speak at international fora, such as the Council of Europe.

Working in human rights in Azerbaijan is dangerous as attacks are both physical and psychological. Whilst drafting the report, news came that Ilgar Nasibov, a journalist from Naxçivan, had to be taken into intensive care after being brutally attacked in his office on 21 August 2014. Individuals are subjected to arbitrary arrest, smear campaigns, pressured to ‘repent’, and they, their families, and their colleagues are threatened. Those involved in highlighting the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan at international level are particularly vulnerable and have, ironically, become political prisoners themselves. 

“I might be arrested upon my return to Azerbaijan following my visit to the Council of Europe this week, maybe even at the airport, but it is important that despite the threat of arrest I go back”, said Khadija Ismayilova, one of the few investigative journalists left in Azerbaijan. Khadija’s case is among the case studies of the report, highlighting the attacks independent journalists in Azerbaijan face.

The report also highlights the case of the wrongful imprisonment of eight youth activists, members of the youth movement N!DA. The closing statement of their trial included a reference to Live Not By Lies, an essay written in 1974 by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident.

This phrase encapsulates a choice all of us face. However, at this defining moment, the phrase is particularly pertinent for the Council of Europe, if it is serious about its role as guarantor of human rights and fundamental freedoms, specifically freedom of expression.

President Aliyev claims that “press freedom is fully ensured”[i], but ARTICLE 19 believes that this is untrue in today’s Azerbaijan. The recent attack on the journalist and human rights defender Ilgar Nasibov in Naxçivan will be a litmus test in demonstrating the Azerbaijani authorities’ political will to investigate the attack and bring both the perpetrators and instigators to justice. Without the resolve to establish the truth in such cases, there will inevitably be an increase in the already acute self-censorship, to add to the almost total lack of press freedom in Azerbaijan.