Human Rights Watch: In Baku Hollande Should Focus on Rights

President Francois Hollande of France should raise urgent human rights concerns during his visit to Baku on May 11, 2014, Human Rights Watch said today. Hollande is scheduled to meet with President Ilham Aliyev to discuss energy and other issues. Hollande will be accompanied by a number of representatives from French companies.

In the past two years, Azerbaijani authorities have arrested and imprisoned dozens of government critics, including political opposition leaders, journalists, and social media activists, and broken up peaceful public demonstrations. The country has adopted legislation that further restricts fundamental freedoms.

"Hollande's visit will be a major event in Azerbaijan, so it's a crucial opportunity to focus on rights issues," said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Hollande should not lose this opportunity to urge the Azerbaijani leadership, in private and in public, to free people who have been wrongfully imprisoned."

Human Rights Watch has urged Hollande to insist on seeing a prominent human rights defender, Leyla Yunus, and her husband while in Baku. On April 28, the Yunuses were barred from boarding a flight to leave the country for a conference. They were detained and questioned in a 24-hour ordeal linked to the politically motivated treason investigation against their colleague, Rauf Mirgadirov. Police arrested Mirgadirov, a journalist, upon his arrival to Baku's airport on April 19 following his unlawful forced removal from Turkey.

"Hollande should make clear to Aliyev that the Yunuses' freedom, and Mirgadirov's, is of great importance to him, and to French-Azerbaijani relations," Denber said.

In a recent letter to Hollande, Human Rights Watch said that in the past year alone, Azerbaijani authorities have brought unfounded criminal charges, including narcotics and weapons possession, hooliganism, incitement to violence, and even treason, against at least 30 political activists, journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders who have criticized the government.

Human Rights Watch documented many of these cases in a 2013 report. Twenty-three people whose cases are documented in the report are serving prison sentences ranging from 2 to 10 years on a variety of false charges. Among them are Ilgar Mammadov, a prominent political analyst and a chairman of a political opposition group, who was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2013, and Tofig Yagublu, deputy chair of the opposition political party Musavat, sentenced to five years in 2013. Both were convicted of bogus rioting charges. The French Foreign Ministry condemned Mammadov's conviction.

"Mammadov's case is already a priority for the French government, so all the more reason for Hollande to raise it at the highest levels in Baku," Denber said. Also among the 23 are eight pro-democracy youth activists sentenced on May 6, 2014, to terms ranging from six to eight years on bogus allegations that they planned to instigate violence at a March 2013 protest.

At least seven others behind bars are awaiting trial.

The Azerbaijani government's crackdown on its critics is wholly inconsistent with its human rights obligations as a Council of Europe member state. Azerbaijan takes over the organization's rotating chairmanship on May 15.

"We hope Hollande will be very explicit in his concern over Azerbaijan's lack of adherence to the shared values that Council of Europe membership entails, particularly at a time when Azerbaijan is taking over the rotating chairmanship," Denber said. -0-

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