Chairmanship in Council of Europe and repressions

Azerbaijan’s longstanding repression of independent voices has reached crisis levels, even as it nears the end of its six-month chairmanship of the Council of Europe, Human Rights Watch said today. The situation puts to the test the council’s standing as Europe’s foremost human rights body.

“The Azerbaijani government’s systematic crackdown on human rights defenders and other perceived government critics shows sheer contempt for its commitments to the Council of Europe,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “To let the relentless repression go unanswered threatens the very credibility of the institution.”

Azerbaijan assumed the six-month rotating chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in May 2014, despite years of suppression of criticism and failure to adhere to the commitments it undertook when joining the organization. But instead of cleaning up its record and addressing longstanding concerns, the government stepped up its crackdown, lashing out at human rights defenders, journalists, and social media activists with spurious criminal charges and convictions.

Over the last two-and-a-half years Azerbaijan has brought or threatened unfounded criminal charges against at least 50 independent and opposition political activists, journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders. Most of them remain behind bars. In the months since Azerbaijan assumed the chairmanship of the Council of Europe the government has dramatically escalated its attack on activists, with authorities arresting at least 11 people and convicting at least nine others on politically motivated charges, sentencing them to various prison terms following flawed trials.

Baku has also used restrictive new laws regulating nongovernmental organizations and other tactics to try to silence independent groups. It has cut off funding by freezing the bank accounts of organizations and their leaders arbitrarily and without recourse and refusing them the authorization to register new grants.

The government has particularly intensified repression against human rights defenders, targeting some of the country’s most prominent activists: Leyla Yunus, the well-known director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, and her husband, the historian Arif Yunus; Rasul Jafarov, chair of Azerbaijan’s Human Rights Club; and Intigam Aliyev, chair of the Legal Education Society. All four are in pretrial detention on spurious charges, ranging from tax evasion to treason.

In another case, on August 21, a journalist and human rights defender, Ilgar Nasibov, was brutally attacked by men he did not know in his office at the Nakhchivan Resource Center, the only independent rights organization operating in the province. The attackers ransacked the office and beat Nasibov, seriously injuring him. In a particularly cynical twist, on September 20, Nasibov was charged with assaulting one of the men who attacked him, who was later identified.

The Council of Europe’s leadership, including its secretary general, the president of its parliamentary assembly, and the human rights commissioner, as well as its member states, should call on the Azerbaijani government to:

Release, immediately and unconditionally, all those wrongfully imprisoned and drop the politically motivated cases against them;

Stop the ongoing campaign of harassment and intimidation against independent organizations and allow them to work unimpeded; and

Undertake, without further delay, long-overdue human rights reforms, including the many outstanding commitments Azerbaijan pledged to fulfill when joining the Council of Europe.

“Azerbaijan’s brutal silencing of its critics while at the helm of the Council of Europe is an assault on the institution and everything it stands for,” Gogia said. “The council’s leadership should condemn Baku’s behavior in the strongest possible terms and make clear that there cannot be business as usual until those imprisoned on politically motivated charges are freed and the crackdown brought to an end.” -0-


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