On 28 April the head of an election watchdog in Azerbaijan, Anar Mammadli, and two of his associates went on trial and face prison sentences. Besides these three men other critics of the regime - a human rights activist, a journalist and two opposition leaders - faced charges as well in the last two months.
The Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center monitored the last elections in Azerbaijan, which took place in the autumn of 2013. The former Soviet state has been governed by president Ilham Aliyev since 2003, when he succeeded his father. The organization exposed widespread irregularities and fraud during the voting procedure and vote counting.
In December Mammadli, the chairman, was arrested. He and two of his employees; executive director Basir Suleymanli and the director of the Union for International Cooperation of Volunteers, Elnur Mammadov are facing charges of “tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, and using their office to falsify election results.”
Amnesty International sees the three men as “prisoners of conscience” and their supporters argue that the charges are politically motivated. Internationally the arrests led to concerns by the OSCE, EU and US.
Over the last couple of months more people who criticized the regime are facing, or already faced, charges.
On 28 April a prominent human rights activist Leyla Yunus and her husband were detained at the Baku airport when they tried to fly to Doha, Qatar. Yunus, the founder and director of the Peace and Democracy Institute, is not allowed to leave the country. The reasons for the detainment are unknown. Yunus herself believes that “the plan is to arrest many human rights activists as a group of spies. The goal is to purge anyone who thinks differently. They do not want anyone who can speak about political prisoners.”
On 19 April Rauf Mirqadirov, commentator for the Russian-language daily ‘Zerkalo’ was taken into custody at the Baku airport after he was deported from Turkey, where he lived for the last three years. According to his lawyer, Mirqadirov is charged with “state treason, specifically with espionage”. Emin Guseynov, director of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, describes Mirqadirov as “a well-known journalist with liberal views, who systematically criticizes human rights violations in Azerbaijan, Turkey, and elsewhere,” which could be a reason for Mirqadirov’s arrest.
The Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) has condemned Azerbaijan’s authorities for charging Mirqadirov and called on them “to drop these trumped-up charges and stop abusing the law to silence independent reporting on the country,” CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator Nina Ognianova said.
In March two opposition leaders were sentenced to prison. Ilgar Mammadov, head of the Republican Alternative movement, faces seven years in prison and deputy head of the Müsavat (Equality) Party, Tofiq Yaqublu five years. Next to them eight defendants received prison sentences, varying between two and a half and eight years. The arterial was about “mass disturbances” that took place in Ismayilli in January 2013. During these protests, participants demanded the resignation of the district governor and put some of his belongings on fire.
Nils Muiznieks, human rights commissioner at the 47-nation non-executive Council of Europe does not see any progress concerning human rights since his last report in August 2013. On 23 April a new report was published, which led to Muiznieks’ conclusion that “freedom of expression, assembly and association are deteriorating in Azerbaijan.”
The government disagrees: the nine million inhabitants “enjoy full freedom of speech and access to a lively opposition press,” the deputy executive secretary of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party said. He further stated that “those, who talk about human rights violations in our country, are biased and try to blacken Azerbaijan’s image.”
In May Azerbaijan is expected to take over the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. Ironically, one of the main focuses of this body is human rights.
By Laura Ritter
Sources: Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty I, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty II, Azadliq, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty III, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty IV, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty V, Reuters, Council of Europe