Opene letter to OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, Swiss Foreign Minister and President of the Confederation Didier Burkhalter

Mr. President:


Under the leitmotif “Creating a Security Community for the Benefit of Everyone”, Switzerland wants to make a tangible contribution to, inter alia, “improving people’s lives, and strengthening the OSCE’s capacity to act”.

The whole point of regional cooperation in the OSCE region is the guarantee of minimum standards of human rights protection for people living here, respect for the rule of law, and the promotion of genuine democracy.


Since its inception in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, the OSCE has been firmly committed to the promotion and protection of human rights. Despite these obligations, some member states are continuing to demonstrate authoritarian tendencies, particularly in persecuting any form of dissent. Azerbaijan is in particularly serious and constant breach of its fundamental commitments to ensure freedoms of expression, assembly and association. IRFS states that all three fundamental freedoms have been curtailed in recent years, and particularly this year in the wake of 2013 Presidential Election.


The recent period has been a troubled one for the OSCE-Azerbaijan relationship. The Azerbaijani government has expressed increasing hostility towards the organization, culminating in an eventual consensus decision to downgrade the mandate of the OSCE Office in Baku to a Project Coordination Office, which took effect in January.


The Azerbaijani government is failing to implement many of commitments laid out in the Copenhagen 1990 document; on the contrary, authorities are committing systematic and widespread violations of these rights.

Azerbaijan is also failing to implement its commitment to freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention, as outlined in the Vienna 1989 document: “The participating States will ensure that no one will be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” . Right now 30 human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers and political activists are behind bars on politically motivated charges in connection with freedom of expression.


Last week, the Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), Ambassador Janez Lenarčič, condemned the sentencing of Azerbaijani human rights defender Anar Mammadli by a Baku court to a prison term of 5 ½ years, describing the ruling as just the latest element in a campaign by the authorities in Azerbaijan to silence those working to ensure the protection of fundamental freedoms.


“Following a concerted campaign of harassment and intimidation of Anar Mammadli and his election monitoring organization by the authorities, I have no doubt that the conviction and sentence in his case are aimed at preventing him from working to defend the rights of voters,” Lenarčič said. “It is also clear to me that this ruling and others like it, are intended as a warning meant to silence others in Azerbaijan who would work to defend the very rights and freedoms that the country has committed itself to promote.”


ODIHR has observed a total of nine elections in Azerbaijan since 1995, including the 2013 presidential election. None of these elections met international standards for fair and free elections, as highlighted in ODIHR’s reports.


Azerbaijani government has consistently ignored ODHIR’s recommendations for many of the most important underlying changes needed to ensure the democratic conduct of elections. Rather than improving the climate for media freedom, allowing all candidates to express their views freely, all citizens to access a wide range of information and opinions, and society in general to engage in robust public debates on matters of policy, the government has cracked down, each year taking further steps to restrict the expression of any form of criticism or dissent.


Most recently, in May, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media (RFOM) Dunja Mijatovic condemned the sentencing of Bizim Yol newspaper journalist Parviz Hashimli to nine years in jail in May, stating she was “outraged” by the verdict, which is “yet more proof of the deteriorating Azerbaijani media freedom environment”. She also said: “There are now more than 10 members of the media in prison in Azerbaijan, convicted or awaiting trial, which is the highest number in that country my Office has observed since it was established. This troubling trend discourages investigative journalism and contributes to a climate of threat and intimidation.”


In fact, the Azerbaijani authorities have failed to take significant steps towards fulfilling many of the recommendations made by the RFOM. Press freedom in Azerbaijan is alarming, with repressive legislation and increased hostility towards critical press from the government. The country holds the regional record for locking up journalists, leaving Belarus, Russia and Uzbekistan scrabbling in the dust, with 14 reporters and bloggers behind bars.


With regard to the many calls to put a stop to attacks against journalists and impunity for their attackers, violence against journalists continues, with more than 200 cases documented by IRFS since the murder of Monitor magazine editor-in-chief Elmar Huseynov in March 2005. Virtually none of these cases have been seriously investigated or prosecuted, resulting in a climate of complete impunity for those who wish to use violence to silence critical voices, and a climate of fear for Azerbaijan’s media community.


As for defamation, not only have the authorities not heeded calls by the RFOM – and indeed, the broader international community – to abolish criminal defamation provisions, but also, the Azerbaijani parliament in 2013 adopted legislation extending these provisions to online content, and President Aliyev signed the bill into law. This act perfectly illustrates the fact that when it comes to human rights, the Azerbaijani government does not take seriously its commitments with international organizations like the OSCE or recommendations from high ranking international officials like the RFOM.


Human rights defenders who have sought to speak out about the crackdown on the international stage have been especially targeted. One of Azerbaijan’s most prominent human rights defenders, Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif Yunus was detained on April 28 at Baku airport and brought to General Prosecutor office for interrogation.  Her passport was confiscated and never returned back. She was questioned by prosecutors and released after nine hours, while her husband was hospitalized in a pre-stroke condition. Her home and office were searched. The prosecutor’s office subsequently designated them as witnesses in a treason investigation against Azerbaijani journalist and civic activist Rauf Mirgadirov, who was deported from Turkey on April 19 and arrested in Baku.


In the lead up to the Azerbaijan’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers there has been a rise in harassment of civil society organizations (CSO) in Azerbaijan. Official intimidation tactics have included the levying of heavy fines on CSOs for petty administrative lapses; the wave of inspections of Azerbaijani non-governmental organizations by the country's law enforcement and tax authorities; the publication of defamatory articles against civil society members in the press; denial of permission to civil society groups to hold meetings in public spaces; and so on.


In a worrisome move, the members of the National Assembly, Milli Meclis, have announced “an open season” on NGOs and human rights defenders by publicly branding civil activists “anti-nationalist forces” and “traitors to the nation”. In another example, a pro-governmental MP, Zahid Oruj publicly accused Geneva-based the International Committee of Red Cross in espionage. Following National Assembly’s menacing comments, a criminal case was launched against a number of local and foreign NGOs, including Copenhagen-based International Media Support  and London-based Oxfam.


The nature of Azerbaijan’s cooperation with the OSCE remains superficial. The Azerbaijani government is simply failing to take its human rights obligations seriously, and is committing widespread and systematic violations of its citizens rights, in direct contradiction to its obligations with the OSCE and other international bodies.


To this end, IRFS calls on the OSCE to take the following steps:


·       Demand actions, not just words, from the Azerbaijani government, using all possible bilateral and multilateral opportunities to hold Azerbaijan to account for its freedom of expression and human rights obligations, particularly in the light of country’s chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.


·       Call upon the Azerbaijani government and law enforcement agencies to end all forms of impunity for violence against journalists and ensure that all cases are adequately investigated and those responsible are brought to justice.


·       Call upon the Azerbaijani government to immediately release all journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and activists in prison or detention in connection with exercising their right to freedom of expression, assembly and association.


·       Ensure that the new mandate of the OSCE Office in Baku prioritizes Azerbaijan’s implementation of its human dimension commitments.


·       Explore ways of supporting the work of the RFOM and holding the Azerbaijani government accountable for fulfilling its media freedom obligations.


·       Engage more directly with local civil society representatives on Azerbaijan’s implementation of its human dimension commitments.


·       Facilitate dialogue between local civil society representatives and the government to encourage greater accountability in fulfillment of Azerbaijan’s human dimension commitments.


·       Strengthen communications between ODIHR and the Azerbaijani government and publicize ODIHR’s efforts to ensure Azerbaijan’s implementation of its human dimension commitments.


·       Foster debate at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly on human rights issues in Azerbaijan, especially in the light of the body’s upcoming meeting in Baku.


Mr. President, we count on your voice, and your moral authority, to be heard in condemning the systemic human rights crackdown in Azerbaijan, the OSCE member state since 1992. OSCE participating states should ensure that the government of Azerbaijan upholds its OSCE commitments and does not further undermine the credibility of the organization.


We thank you for your attention and hope we can count on your principled leadership on these important matters.


Emin Huseynov


Chairman and CEO


Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety

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