Azerbaijan: an area of darkness

Some 5 million Azerbaijani citizens will be called Sunday to elect 125 members of Parliament from a list of almost 1,200 candidates. This large number of candidates does not mean the voters will be able to make a free and informed choice.

Elections in this country, which sits on rich reserves of natural resources at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, have been marred by fraud and irregularities since the country became independent in 1991.

Both the latest parliamentary elections in 2010 and those of 2005 have led to a conspicuous number of judgments by the European Court of Human Rights, which found Azerbaijan in breach of the right to free elections for reasons ranging from irregularities in the electoral process to arbitrary invalidation of election results and ineffective examination of complaints about electoral abuses. On October 8, the Court again urged Azerbaijan to reform its unfair elections process.

The European judges were unequivocal: “The conduct of both the electoral commissions and courts — including the Constitutional Court — in the applicants’ case revealed an apparent lack of any genuine concern for combatting allegations of electoral fraud and protecting the applicants’ right to stand for election.”

The Court also criticized the “particularly high proportion of pro-ruling party members” in the electoral commissions, which “had been one of the systemic factors contributing to the ineffectiveness of the way in which the applicants’ complaints had been examined.”

The current human rights situation in Azerbaijan casts an even darker cloud over the upcoming elections. Human rights activists, journalists and national electoral observers have been muzzled using repressive legislation, jailed on trumped-up charges or forced to escape into exile. Under these circumstances, it is impossible to hold any meaningful debate about the election or to ensure its accountability.

The most glaring example of how the human rights crackdown affects the electoral process is that of Anar Mammadli. A prominent human rights activist, he was the director of an independent — and highly professional — electoral observation organization. When he received the Václav Havel Award for Human Rights in 2014, he had just started serving a five year sentence for his repeated criticism of Azerbaijani elections.

Another victim of the crackdown is Ilgar Mammadov, President Ilham Aliyev’s main political opponent, who was imprisoned in 2013 just in time to prevent him from participating in the presidential election. The authorities charged him with fomenting public disorder and then sentenced him to seven years in prison. The European Court of Human Rights found the “actual purpose of his detention had been to silence or punish Mammadov for criticizing the Government and publishing information it was trying to hide.”

The case of Intigam Aliyev, a lawyer who won dozens of cases against Azerbaijan before the ECtHR — including some concerning electoral irregularities — is also telling. He was sentenced to seven and a half years last April, the same prison term handed down in September to Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent investigative journalist who received several international awards for her work.

The situation is so worrying that on October 7 the Council of Europe withdrew from a working group established to revive the dialogue between civil society and Azerbaijani authorities. This unprecedented move followed an unusually strong position adopted by the organization in September, in which they deplored Azerbaijan’s lack of progress in executing the ECtHR’s judgments concerning electoral commissions and the capacity for local courts to review the legality of elections.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also took a rare stance when it pulled out of its electoral observation mission to Azerbaijan after authorities placed excessive restrictions on the number of observers.

Despite this widespread international criticism, Azerbaijan’s authorities remain undaunted. Their official position is that these activists and members of the political opposition are in jail for criminal activities. But their claims ring hollow.

Either Azerbaijan’s human rights defenders are all thieves, tax evaders and spies, or something is seriously wrong with its political and judicial system. I tend to believe the latter is true. The Council of Europe and other international institutions, including the U.N. and the OSCE, have worked with these defenders for years. We know them and we appreciate their contribution to democracy, the rule of law and human rights in Azerbaijan.

The only chance Azerbaijan has to reverse its growing international isolation and show its commitment to democratic values is to free and clean the criminal records of all human rights defenders, journalists and others imprisoned for their work or for opposing the establishment.

This will sound like heresy to the Azerbaijani authorities. But only by allowing Ilgar Mammadov, Anar Mammadli, Intigam Alyiev and the other courageous human rights defenders to continue their work will Azerbaijan dispel the international community’s doubts about its place in the democratic community. Until this is done, no credible election, no meaningful debate and no electoral observation will take place.

Nils Muižnieks is the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights.

By Nils Muiznieks 10/28/15, 4:27 PM CET

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