Azerbaijan increases crackdown on human rights activists

 Azerbaijan has increasingly been criticized for its massive crackdown on human rights activists by international organisations and NGOs. On 19 August, the United Nations issued a report condemning their prosecution, underlining that the “criminalization of rights activists must stop.” The report came as the list of political prisoners was revealed and an Azerbaijani Court presided over an appeal trial of a young activist on August 20, in a case denounced as “politically motivated” by his followers.

98 political prisoners listed

For the first time, a list of all political prisoners detained in Azerbaijan was compiled and published in an English version on 19 August. The list contains 98 names of mainly well-known journalists, human rights defenders, youth activists and opposition politicians. Rather ironically, it also includes those of Leyla Yunus, Arif Yunus, as well as NGO head Rasul Jafarov, and lawyer Intigam Aliyev who themselves crafted the list. Mrs and Mr Yunus were accused of treason and spying for Armenia – with which Azerbaijan is involved in a frozen conflict - while Jafarov and Aliyev were charged with tax evasion, abuse of power and illegal entrepreneurship.  “Leyla Yunus is yet another independent voice in Azerbaijan who, for a long time, the government has tried to silence through threats and intimidation,” said Amnesty International researcher Natalia Nozadze. In parallel, the Baku Court of Appeal held a preliminary hearing on August 20 on the case of Omar Mammadov, who had been sentenced to five years in prison in July for drug trafficking. Mammadov is a youth activist, leader of the movement Akhyn, who repeatedly mocked Azerbaijani authorities on the internet.

The issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan emerged when the country applied for membership to the Council of Europe in the 1990. One of the conditions to join the organisation was the determination of who are the prisoners put behind bars for political reasons. Nevertheless, the government has always rejected the elaboration of such a list, that would challenge its political power. Political analyst Azer Gasmili explains “The authorities clearly didn't want such a list to be published, and decided to persecute and eventually arrest [its authors],” while Human Rights Watch observers underline the importance of the coming European Games in June 2015 in the country’s capital city Baku. “It is much easier to silence critics now, rather than wait and do it on the eve of the mega event,” they say.

UN “appalled” by Azerbaijani treatment of human rights activists

The treatment of human rights activists in Azerbaijan has raised concern  on the international scene. Recently, laws regulating NGOs were tightened in order to make their registration more difficult, and the civil society’s critical voices were gradually restricted in the name of “transparency” and “improvement of professional performance” explained Azay Guliyev, chairperson of the Azerbaijani Council of State Support for NGOs. Opposition rallies were also banned in the country’s capital city.

The crackdown on human rights activists should also be placed in the wider context of Azerbaijan’s conflict with neighbouring Armenia. The frozen conflict between the two countries in the Nagorno-Karabakh region underwent renewed clashes at the beginning of August while Baku increased its military spending and officials gave threatening speeches against Armenia. This threat of war constitutes a good opportunity for the executive power to control the civil society, as in the case of Leyla Yunus who had largely been working with her Armenian counterparts to find a peaceful settlement to the conflict. “It is not uncommon for illiberal – in this case, deeply authoritarian – regimes to use a security threat (whether real, imagined, or self-created) as a pretext for singling out alleged ‘traitors’ and cracking down on civil society and individual critics,” explained Sylvana Kolaczkowska from Freedom House.

This strategy was denounced by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights who talked about “trumped-up charges” used to restrict activists’ work in the country. The charges have recently grown in variety and intensity, from hooliganism and drug possession to weapon possession, treason, and tax evasion. In the letter that Leyla Yunus wrote to her husband Arif on August 20, she deplored the “21st century would bring the repression of the 1930s.”

Eventually, the high hopes pinned on Azerbaijan when it took over the Presidency of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers on May 14, 2014 - an organisation  celebrated for its focus on human rights defence - no longer seem to make any sense today.

Sources : Azeri Report, Radio Free Liberty I, Radio Free Liberty II, BBC, The Guardian, AIDHR,  Times of Armenia,  European Forum for Solidarity and Democracy, Human Rights Watch, Panorama.am, Den Norske Helsingforskomite

Photograph: David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

Author : Laura Gounon

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