Azerbaijan has completed another cycle – from the arrest of Ilgar Mammadov in February 2013 to the sentencing of Khadija Ismayilova on September 1, 2015 – purging leading civil society and political voices from the streets of Baku, ahead of the November parliamentary elections.
Who is left?
This is the question following Khadija Ismayilova’s seven-and-a-half-year sentence. A few brave human rights defenders, journalists, and activists remain in Azerbaijan, working discretely and showing great courage. They should not be forgotten, but the oppressive sentences against leading Azerbaijani figures have decimated the human rights community and had a chilling effect on civil society. The imprisonment of journalist Khadija Ismayilova, human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, and human rights defenders Leyla Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, Anar Mammadli, and so many others have all added to this frightening climate of repression.
It was Khadija Ismayilova
who finalised the list of political prisoners, originally compiled by Rasul Jafarov and Leyla Yunus. The list mentions 100 people, but those 100 are only the tip of the iceberg; that number would be significantly higher if other leading civil society actors had not fled the country, forming a growing diaspora of Azerbaijani human rights defenders.
In 2014, the Azerbaijani authorities rounded up the county’s well-known civil society leaders, and audaciously targeted even those monitoring and documenting the cases of political prisoners. Khadija Ismayilova’s sentence marks the end of this cycle, which began with the February 4, 2013 arrest of Ilgar Mammadov, opposition leader and head of the Republican Alternatives (REAL). Mammadov was charged with incitement to violence, but he is only guilty of being a credible opposition candidate to President Ilham Aliyev.
Following the October 2013 presidential election, Anar Mammadli and Bashir Suleymanli were arrested on December 16, 2013. They were later sentenced on charges such as misappropriation, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion or abuse of office. They were in fact only guilty of producing credible and well-documented reporting on election fraud.
The Azerbaijani government has amended legislation since 2009, enabling it to restrict the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, which we have documented in our report
Breaking Point in Azerbaijan
. This has devastated civil society in the country, using laws created to cover arbitrary detentions and sentences with a shimmer of legality.
In 2012, the government began the massive destruction of private homes aimed at the “beautification” of Baku, while closing in on the the ultimate aim of its cycle of repression: the “beautification” of public debate through silencing critics and preventing them from polluting the state’s image from within the country. In Strasbourg in June 2014, President Aliyev could not stand the fact that he was questioned so intensively by members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, who based their questions on sources from within Azerbaijan.
Those sources are now silenced, and a new repressive cycle is beginning. The public debate will certainly be less “polluted.” This new cycle is even more alarming, extending to punishing those already in prison, such as Leyla Yunus, her husband Arif Yunus, and Intigam Aliyev, who are imprisoned despite desperately needing medical care. The authorities are also seeking retribution against the relatives and colleagues of those voicing critical opinions, as seen with campaigns against the families of political prisoners. In this cycle of fear and deepening repression, the government exerts total control over civil society and political activities in the country.
The answer to the cycle, which led to the arrests of leading human rights defenders, journalists and activists in the country, must also come from the international community. It must strongly express support for them, and provide practical help to them and their relatives, without putting them at risk of legal prosecution.
The space for public dialogue in Azerbaijan has disappeared, and the credibility of its commitments to human rights under the Council of Europe has vanished. Political sanctions must be imposed: first to clearly document the human rights violations, second to signal the end of business as usual.
The Council of Europe must suspend the credentials of the Azerbaijani parliament at the Council of Europe, and consider targeted sanctions against those misusing the law to imprison human rights defenders, journalists, and activists. This should include restricting their rights to travel abroad. The international community has expressed concern at the cycle of arrests, and some voices have called for the release of political prisoners. The international community must begin a cycle of responding to the systemic and systematic violation of human rights by the Azerbaijani authorities.
Florian Irminger, Head of Advocacy,
Human Rights House Foundation
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Meydan TV’s editorial policy.