Photo credit: Ann Tsurtsumia-Zurabashvili
When two Amnesty International delegates arrived in Baku this Wednesday, they were told by the stone-faced immigration officers that they were not allowed to enter the country for reasons unknown. They were offered no explanation, food or beverages for seven hours. Levan Asatiani, a Georgian national, was one of the delegates denied entry.
Asatiani spoke with Meydan TV about what transpired at the Baku airport on the day of their deportation, the state of Azerbaijan’s increasingly fragmented civil society and whether he plans to attempt to return to Azerbaijan.
Tell us what happened when you were deported.
The Amnesty International delegation was planning to visit Azerbaijan on a research mission to meet with civil society and political parties ahead of the elections to get up-to-date information on the human rights situation there. When we, the delegation of two, arrived at the Baku International Airport, we were stopped at the border control and told that we were prohibited from entering the country. They said that they would have to deport us back. Our passports were taken. After several hours, we were put on the next flight back to Tbilisi. The officers did not really explain the reason for the deportation. They simply said that our names were on the list of people prohibited from entering the territory of Azerbaijan.
How long did you have to wait at the airport?
About 7-6 hours. They explained initially that they would have to deport us and take us back on the next flight. They said that there was no flight to Tbilisi for another seven hours and that we would have to spend 7 hours at the airport.
And they didn’t say why your names were on the list?
No, they did not explain anything. They made a couple of calls but they did not disclose the content of those calls.
Were they polite with you?
They were very professional. It all went without an incident.
While you were waiting, were you offered any food or beverages?
Not really. Basically, they made us wait in the travel lobby area, which meant that we had access to shops. But obviously, we had to pay for the services. The deportation ticket was also paid by Amnesty International.
You’ve been to Azerbaijan before. Is that the first time you’ve faced something like that?
Amnesty International was barred from entering Azerbaijan in June ahead of the European Games, and I was supposed to be a member of the delegation there. But we received beforehand a letter saying, “Do not come. The Amnesty International mission is not welcome.” This time, we also contacted the authorities, including the Azerbaijani embassy in London, saying that we were planning to be in Azerbaijan in October. Because the previous letter said, “We can’t welcome you now during the Games but please reschedule the mission after the Games.” We told them that we were keen to take this invitation, now that the Games are over. We did not get any reply to those messages, unfortunately.
Why do you think this happened?
This happened because the Azerbaijani government is shutting its doors to any type of international scrutiny. They do not want any international organization to monitor the appalling human rights situation inside the country. They’re trying the halt the channel so that information about human rights crackdown does not reach the outside world. But obviously, it’s impossible to do this in the contemporary world. If you ban organizations from entering the country, there will still be information channeled. The government will not be able to hide the human rights violations it is committing.
Is it becoming difficult for Azerbaijan to continue this crackdown without impunity now that people around the world see that the government has become increasingly repressive?
What we’re seeing is that the government is becoming very hysterical toward any type of criticism voiced against Azerbaijan. They should at some point realize that Azerbaijan will have to pay a price for its human rights crackdown. That price will be the image that Azerbaijan will have in the world. You probably remember the resolution recently adopted by the European Parliament, which very strongly condemned imprisonment of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan. You also probably remember the reaction of Baku to this resolution. It’s obvious that they’re very sensitive about their international image.
Unfortunately, unless they immediately release prisoners of conscience and stop attacks on freedom of expression, Azerbaijan’s human rights image will continue to further deteriorate. I think it’s also important that the world, especially the Western governments, use every available means to publicly raise human rights concerns in Azerbaijan and publicly call on the Azerbaijani government to improve the human rights situation.
It is very clear that the time of silent diplomacy is gone, and silent diplomacy is not effective.
You said that the price Azerbaijan will have to pay is its image. But it looks like that the government does not care about its image anymore. Recently, President Ilham Aliyev described European values as redundant.
I’m certain that Azerbaijan still cares about its image and is sensitive about it. I can’t say with certainty whether this is enough for them to actually undertake political steps when it comes to human rights. Obviously, the European governments could do much more. They should use the political and diplomatic leverage they have in Azerbaijan to encourage Azerbaijan to stop the human rights crackdown, and they should use any type of channels they have to persuade Azerbaijan that in the long term, it is in Azerbaijan’s best interest to stop the human rights crackdown and have a strong civil society.
The European Parliament mentioned the possibility of imposing sanctions on Azerbaijan. Is this a viable tool to pressure the government?
Amnesty International is an organization that rarely takes a position regarding sanctions. So we cannot really comment whether this will be a successful tool when it comes to human rights crackdown.
But what are the real actionable steps that can be taken to pressure Azerbaijan, aside from statements and condemnations?
There’s a big distance from statements to sanctions. There are other tools of leverage that governments will have on Baku. The European governments should make it abundantly clear that it is very important for them that Azerbaijan respect basic human rights values, and make it extremely clear that if Azerbaijan wants to have business with Western leaders, Azerbaijan must respect basic human rights inside the country.
Is this pattern of attacks on human rights unprecedented?
Absolutely, it’s unprecedented. Azerbaijan’s human rights record has never been satisfactory. Amnesty International has always had concerns when it comes to human rights in Azerbaijan. But what we’ve seen in the last two years is, indeed, unprecedented. Right now in Azerbaijan, civil society is pretty much wiped out. There are no independent voices left. The government purged the socio-political landscape of the country from any type of dissent. This is unprecedented not only in Azerbaijan but in the region as well.
Why is this happening now? Is this partially because of the economic conditions and devaluation of
putting pressure on the government?
It could be a combination of different social and economic factors. But for Amnesty International, the main concern is that Azerbaijan feels that it can get away with human rights crackdown. And it’s very important for Western leaders to show Azerbaijan that human rights violations cannot happen without impunity. Right now, Azerbaijan feels that it has the power to actually engage in human rights crackdown without paying any real price. European leaders should change this attitude of Baku.
You said that civil society is wiped out. Activists are in jail or exile. What is the state of homegrown activism in Azerbaijan?
The state of activism is very weak. Activists are either incarcerated or fled the country, or those who remained in Azerbaijan try to keep a low profile. We saw that this wave of repression did not end with the arrests of high-profile activists. We witnessed that a couple of weeks ago when the journalists of Meydan TV were detained, for example. This shows that every attempt at dissent will be killed by the Azerbaijani government, and this prevents any consolidation of civil society there. Also, opposition parties are weakened because they have to operate in the context of severe repression. It is obvious that the Azerbaijani government will continue to have the same policy and try to stop any type of consolidation and build-up of civil society in the country.
What is Amnesty planning to do to continue to support activism in Azerbaijan?
We keep in touch with activists and get regular updates. We try to have Azerbaijan as one of our priority countries. We try to conduct campaigns and high-level advocacy, and we’ll be regularly monitoring the situation even if we’re prevented from entering the country.
When you were deported, were you told whether you’re prohibited from ever coming back?
They said that they cannot tell us for sure whether this is a lifetime ban or not. Maybe after some years, it is possible that we can come back to the country. But they told us that the system shows that we cannot enter Azerbaijan now.
Will you try to return anytime in the future?
In the nearest future, we will not return to Azerbaijan. But we will for sure try to raise this issue with the Azerbaijani authorities, so that Amnesty International is able to enter the country at some point.