The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has stated the recent arrests of opposition figures in Azerbaijan is a threat to the country's main opposition Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA), and urged authorities to put an end to the ongoing “relentless crackdown.”
“The latest wave of arrests in Azerbaijan follows the well-documented pattern of politically motivated arrests and prosecutions and threatens to decimate one of the country’s oldest opposition parties,”
Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“The authorities should immediately end the crackdown, release those unjustly imprisoned, and investigate law enforcement’s conduct,” he added in a report released on Wednesday.
HRW spoke to eleven lawyers and examined the court documents and official statements of ten people arrested since 15 July, before it revealed the report.
The international organization said that the Azerbaijani authorities arrested numerous opposition activists and leaders based on trumped-up criminal charges.
On 14 July, after rising military tensions with neighboring Armenia, people took to the streets in support of the country's armed forces and were arrested on charges of destroying property and attempting a coup, violating isolation rules related to the COVID-19 pandemic and spreading the disease.
That same night, a group of protesters shortly entered the parliament building and state property was reportedly damaged before police removed them. Officials say it was an attempt by the political opposition to overthrow the government by force, and dozens of opposition activists were arrested in the following days.
In a speech on national television a day after the protest, President Ilham Aliyev accused the opposition PFPA of violence, calling them “traitors,” and “enemies”, stressing that the problem must be resolved soon.
According to civic activists, 80 people were arrested, seventeen of them being PFPA members. Lawyers of the opposition members told HRW that none of them entered the parliament building the night the incident occurred.
“Yet sixteen face criminal charges of using violence against an official, violating public order, and destruction of property, and one is accused of spreading an infectious disease,” the report said.
In March, Azerbaijan tightened criminal sanctions for violating health and hygiene rules set in the country. Violations are punishable by a fine of up to 5,000 manat (approximately $ 3,000) or up to three years in prison.
HRW called on governments not to arrest people for violating COVID-19 restrictions.
“Laws creating criminal sanctions for spreading COVID-19 are not legitimate or proportionate response to the threat posed by the virus,” HRW said in its assessment of the government's policy on COVID-19.
“Criminalization of exposure to and transmission of COVID-19 might also have negative public health consequences, including discouraging people from seeking testing and care, and the use of such laws by authorities to target marginalized populations, minorities, or dissidents,” the statement added.
The international human rights watchdog said that after the arrest of the opposition members, their right to a fair trial was also under risk, and the right of activists to choose a lawyer was not safeguarded.
“Such blatant due process violations raise concerns of the risk of torture and ill-treatment.”
Azerbaijan is a party to a number of international decrees, including the European Convention on Human Rights, which “prohibits arbitrary detention, guarantees the right to a lawyer, including one of the detainee’s choosing, during police custody, and provides for the absolute ban on ill-treatment in custody,” Human Rights Watch added.
On 31 July, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly rapporteurs on Azerbaijan expressed their “grave concern” about the “the troubling pattern of arbitrary arrest and detention of government critics”, and called on the authorities to “ensure full respect for the freedoms of expression and assembly, the prohibition of torture, and the rights to liberty and security and to a fair trial.”
In a speech on 15 July, President Aliyev said he dismissed criticism of the Council of Europe and other international organizations over the crackdown.