Crackdown at home, glamor abroad: HRHN head of advocacy discusses Azerbaijan’s tools of repression

Meydan TV spoke with HRHN Head of Advocacy Florian Irminger about the key findings of the report, titled “”Breaking point in Azerbaijan: Promotion and glamour abroad, Repression and imprisonment at home.”

Image – Florian Irminger

In a new


 released last week, the Human Rights House Network (HRHN) and Freedom Now provide a comprehensive analysis of the tools and methods Azerbaijani authorities are using to crack down on civil society. Meydan TV spoke with HRHN Head of Advocacy Florian Irminger about the key findings of the report, titled “”Breaking point in Azerbaijan: Promotion and glamour abroad, Repression and imprisonment at home.”

Your report is different from previous human rights studies on Azerbaijan in the way it explores strategies of coercion and control used in modern Azerbaijan. What motivated you to produce this report at this time?

The issue of arbitrary detention in Azerbaijan is nothing new; the Azerbaijani government has publicly committed itself to ending arbitrary detention inside the country as part of the accession process in joining the Council of Europe. Our motivation in producing the report is due to the fact that the country instead of doing its best to end a practice is in fact adopting laws to give a shine of legality to the arrest of key civil society leaders. This is also where our report is particular: it documents in detail how, step by step, the authorities put in place a repressive system and how, one after another, leading figures were arrested.

What challenges did you face in conducting your research?

Freedom Now and the Human Rights House Network have a longstanding experience working on Azerbaijan. We know the country well and have excellent contacts with so many Azerbaijani powerful human rights defenders, journalists and activists. We however have to admit to two challenges.

Firstly, our report was prepared with findings, material and sources provided by so many colleagues who are now behind bars, such human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, or human rights defenders Leyla Yunus and Rasul Jafarov, who from prison in August 2014 finalized their list of almost 100 political prisoners in the country, including themselves at that point.

Secondly, the pressure against lawyers makes access to first hand court documentation very dangerous. We document the pressure against lawyers in the report, but such is a key concern and difficulty, but frankly also a sign of the level of crackdown and the lack of rule of law.

The report indeed draws a link between repression at home and outward images of openness fuelled by international leaders and celebrities attending events in Azerbaijan. Are Western leaders complicit in sustaining dictatorship in Azerbaijan?

I would not say complicit but the European Union, and its member states have yet to change their mindset. What we show in the report is that three events were seen by many as moments of progress in the country, and they in fact were signs of further repression: in 2012 the Eurovision, in 2013 the presidential election, and in 2014 the Chairmanship of the Council of Europe.

When political leaders of Europe believe that in 2015 the European Games or in 2016 the Formula 1 competition will be moments of progress, they are wrong. We document therefore why they have to change their mindset: Azerbaijan is not hosting fancy events to show their progress on the human rights and social fronts but simply to promote themselves.

In what ways do the methods of repression in Azerbaijan differ from other authoritarian states? Did you find them more sophisticated, for lack of a better word?

Azerbaijan distinguishes itself by crackdown and imprisonment at home, but promotion and glamour abroad. At the time when it counts over 100 political prisoners and civil society was merely shut down, it is also massively present in Europe with its promotion for the European Games of June 2015. The difference in the methods is there; selling wonder abroad and thereby attracting much positive attention. This of course includes the fact that Azerbaijan’s resources allow the government to massively fund such promotion campaigns, including with Western politicians.

Located next to Iran, Azerbaijan appears to Western countries as a lesser evil and an example of a modern, predominantly Shiite state. What role do geopolitics and energy play in shielding Azerbaijan from criticism?

What we document in the report is that President Ilham Aliyev himself in one of his famous tweets said that the country is a strong, growing and modern state (3 September 2014). In fact, “strength” signifies the government’s entrenched power, intolerance to criticism. “Growth” narrowly describes a portion of the economy without acknowledging growing repression against civil society and the independence of anti-corruption campaigners and journalists, such as Khadija Ismayilova whose case we analyze. “Modernity” is evidenced only by a facade of a new construction and coats of paint, whilst elements of a truly modern society, such as rule of law and respect for human rights, are virtually non-existent.

A question to answer your question: are these the kind of partners the European Union, its member states, and the United States want to have throughout the world?

The Azerbaijani Parliament just recently denounced the so-called campaign of “discrediting Azerbaijan” ahead of the European Games. Did you receive any reaction from the Azerbaijani officials regarding your findings?

We do not really pay attention to reactions in Azerbaijani pro-governmental media, whether directed against the Human Rights House Foundation or personally against staff members. What is way more worrying, is that if an Azerbaijani NGO would put out a report with such findings, one can be sure that its bank account would be frozen, the authorities would invent organization-directed charges against it, and its leader would suddenly be arrested and stand in pre-trial detention. We know, because so many great human rights NGOs used to document human rights abuses but now are in exactly that situation.

Azerbaijan is a relatively unknown country to the Western world. Events like the Eurovision and the European Games drew attention to this country, both negative and positive. How can rights groups capitalize on this momentum to make the world more aware of the violations that take place beneath the surface?

Usually, one should have as first and foremost objective to be raising awareness within the Azerbaijani public. That was the intent of the campaign “Sing for Democracy,” whose coordinator, Rasul Jafarov, has now been sentenced to a terribly long imprisonment. It is only because there is basically no space left for independent civil society in the country to campaign, that now we have to build up international campaigns. Such campaigns are also an answer to Azerbaijan’s heavy promotion abroad.

That being said, our aim as partner of the “Sports for Rights” campaign is not to call for a boycott. Have the sports people do their competition. We aim at saying that given the situation in the country, no European political leader should attend the events in Baku. The message to President Ilham Aliyev has to be that there is no party to have with him.

Many authoritarian countries exploit the image of an external enemy to drum up internal support and justify repression. How has the government exploited its conflict in Armenia to stifle dissent?

In our report, we document the cases of human rights defender Leyla Yunus and journalist Rauf Mirkadirov. Both are accused of treason. Furthermore, the Head of the Presidential Administration, Ramiz Mehdiyev, issued a 60-page on 4 December 2014 document that accused employees of RFE/RL of treason and specifically singled out Khadija Ismayilova, claiming that she makes anti-Azerbaijani shows, makes absurd statements, openly demonstrates a destructive attitude towards well-known members of the Azerbaijani community, and spreads insulting lies.

We can all read here and there, on social media or on media outlets close to the government, that basically accusations of working against Azerbaijan are the ones that come up often when speaking about leading civil society figures in prison.

What are your key recommendations for the international community to make Azerbaijan comply with its international obligations and human rights standards?

We basically have three calls. The easiest one is that no political figure should attend events in relation to the European Games in June, given the situation in the country. The second one concerns the Council of Europe: the institution has to react to the dramatically deteriorating situation in Azerbaijan but nobody wants the Azerbaijani citizens to lose their rights guaranteed under the European Convention.

Therefore, Azerbaijan’s political representation has to be suspended at the Parliamentary Assembly, whilst the state’s obligations towards its citizens and the Council of Europe must remain fully. Finally, we also call for targeted sanctions, such as travel bans and asset freeze, against those responsible for the misuse of law to imprison human rights defenders, journalists and activists, such as prosecutors and judges.

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