"Dark Times" in Azerbaijan

The depiction by Azerbaijan’s foreign minister of summer 2014 “as a particularly dark time” in an October 2 speech at the Council of Europe couldn’t have been more fitting to describe the state of human rights in his own country.

The minister, Elmar Mammadyarov, used this striking terminology in his address to the council’s Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg, speaking as the chairperson of the institution’s Committee of Ministers. While he was referring to the Ukraine crisis, it’s hard to imagine that anyone in the room – except apparently the minister himself – could have been oblivious to its eerie relevance for Azerbaijan. In recent months, the government’sgrowing suppression of criticism has escalated into a full-blown assault.

Just since Azerbaijan assumed its role in the rotation as Council of Europe chair in mid-May, at least 11 activists have been arrested and at least 9 others convicted and sentenced to prison terms on politically motivated charges. Among those arrested – within days of each other, between July 30 and August 8 – are some of the country’s most prominent human rights 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.

This shocking wave of mid-summer arrests followed dozens of others – political activists, rights defenders, journalists, bloggers, and other social media activists – whom the authorities have imprisoned in the past two-and-a-half years on similarly trumped-up charges.

In addition to politically motivated arrests to clamp down on critics, the government has used restrictive new laws regulating nongovernmental organisations and other tactics to silence independent groups. It has cut off funding by freezing the bank accounts of organisations and their leaders arbitrarily and without recourse and refusing them the authorisation to register new grants. As a result, many groups have been effectively forced to shut down. Among them is the leading media monitoring group, Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, whose offices police raided in August, confiscating computers and reports, and sealing the office shut. The group’s director, Emin Huseynov, has been forced into hiding. Other well-known activists have felt compelled to leave the country.

Khadija Ismayilova, an outspoken investigative journalist known for her critical reporting, is not among them, but the authorities miss no chance to remind her that they are on her case. She went to Strasbourg last week to speak out about government repression in Azerbaijan and to enlist the Council of Europe’s support to help bring it to an end. When she returned on October 3, customs officials at Baku airport held her for five hours in what appears to have been a pure act of harassment and retaliation.

It is time for Azerbaijan’s international partners to draw a red line. The European Parliament and the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly have both spoken out and urged Baku to end the ongoing crackdown and release all those wrongfully imprisoned. Now it’s up to EU and Council of Europe leaders to put their full weight behind these calls, and use every tool available to show that they mean it. One such tool is the “Strategic Modernisation Partnership” that Azerbaijan has been pursuing with the EU. EU leaders should put these negotiations on hold and make clear that any advancement in relations is firmly off the table until the government releases all those imprisoned on politically motivated charges and ends the ongoing crackdown against independent groups.

It is the least Khadija and her colleagues should be able to count on. Their extraordinary bravery, and the heavy price they pay simply for holding their government to Council of Europe standards, demand nothing less.

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