Originally published by
Human Rights Watch
(Strasbourg) – Azerbaijan’s longstanding repression of independent voices has reached crisis levels, even as it nears the end of its six-month chairmanship of the Council of Europe. The situation puts to the test the council’s standing as Europe’s foremost human rights body.
“The Azerbaijani government’s systematic crackdown on human rights defenders and other perceived government critics shows sheer contempt for its commitments to the Council of Europe,” said
, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “To let the relentless repression go unanswered threatens the very credibility of the institution.”
assumed the six-month rotating chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in May 2014, despite years of suppression of criticism and failure to adhere to the commitments it undertook when joining the organization. But instead of cleaning up its record and addressing longstanding concerns, the government stepped up its crackdown, lashing out at human rights defenders, journalists, and social media activists with spurious criminal charges and convictions.
Over the last two-and-a-half years Azerbaijan has brought or threatened unfounded criminal charges against at least 50 independent and opposition political activists, journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders. Most of them remain behind bars. In the months since Azerbaijan assumed the chairmanship of the Council of Europe the government has dramatically escalated its attack on activists, with authorities arresting at least 11 people and convicting at least nine others on politically motivated charges, sentencing them to various prison terms following flawed trials.
Baku has also used restrictive new laws regulating nongovernmental organizations and other tactics to try to
independent groups. It has cut off funding by freezing the bank accounts of organizations and their leaders arbitrarily and without recourse and refusing them the authorization to register new grants.
The government has particularly intensified repression against human rights defenders, targeting some of the country’s most prominent activists:
, the well-known director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, and her husband, the historian
Rasul Jafarov, chair of Azerbaijan’s Human Rights Club; and Intigam Aliyev, chair of the Legal Education Society. All four are in pretrial detention on spurious charges, ranging from tax evasion to treason.
In another case, on August 21, a journalist and human rights defender, Ilgar Nasibov, was brutally attacked by men he did not know in his office at the Nakhchivan Resource Center, the only independent rights organization operating in the province. The attackers ransacked the office and beat Nasibov, seriously injuring him. In a particularly cynical twist, on September 20, Nasibov was charged with assaulting one of the men who attacked him, who was later identified.
The Council of Europe’s leadership, including its
, the president of its parliamentary assembly, and the human rights commissioner, as well as its member states, should call on the Azerbaijani government to:
Release, immediately and unconditionally, all those wrongfully imprisoned and drop the politically motivated cases against them;
Stop the ongoing campaign of harassment and intimidation against independent organizations and allow them to work unimpeded; and
Undertake, without further delay, long-overdue human rights reforms, including the many outstanding commitments Azerbaijan pledged to fulfill when joining the Council of Europe.
“Azerbaijan’s brutal silencing of its critics while at the helm of the Council of Europe is an assault on the institution and everything it stands for,” Gogia said. “The council’s leadership should condemn Baku’s behavior in the strongest possible terms and make clear that there cannot be business as usual until those imprisoned on politically motivated charges are freed and the crackdown brought to an end.”
on Politically Motivated Charges
The Human Rights Watch September 2013
, “Tightening the Screws: Azerbaijan’s Crackdown on Civil Society and Dissent,” documented the arrest and imprisonment of several high-ranking members of opposition political parties, numerous other government critics with large followings on social media, and people who had frequently participated in political protests. A year later, 16 people whose cases the report documented and who were awaiting trial have been convicted and sentenced to prison; six have been released; and 21 others have been charged, arrested, and convicted, or are in custody pending criminal investigations or trials.
Below is an updated summary of cases documented in the report and of the new arrests. The update is based on telephone and Skype interviews, as well as email and Facebook communications with: relatives, lawyers, and others close to the cases of imprisoned activists and journalists; staff of nongovernmental organizations; journalists; and activists with youth groups and political parties.
Cases of Nongovernmental Group Leaders and Human Rights Defenders
On August 21, 2014, unknown assailants brutally
, a journalist and human rights defender, in the office of the Nakhchivan Resource Center, the only independent rights organization operating in the province. The attackers ransacked the office and beat Nasibov, leaving him unconscious and causing serious injuries, including a concussion, broken cheekbones, nose, and ribs, and temporary loss of vision in one eye. A police investigation initially claimed that Nasibov was injured in a brawl with a friend, which Nasibov denied. On September 20, Nasibov was charged with assaulting one of the men who attacked him and he was placed under police supervision. Nasibov and his wife,
, a well-known activist, have for years been subjected to physical and psychological pressure because of their human rights work.
On August 8, authorities sent the prominent human rights defender
, head of the nongovernmental group Legal Education Society, to pretrial detention for three months, accused of tax evasion, abuse of power, and illegal business activities. Aliyev, a lawyer, has litigated human rights cases in domestic courts and brought hundreds of applications to the European Court of Human Rights on cases of election rigging, abuses of free speech, and fair trial rights. Many believe his arrest is retribution for his human rights work and criticism of Azerbaijan’s poor rights record in international fora, including at the Council of Europe. If found guilty, Aliyev may face up to seven years in prison.
On August 2, the Grave Crimes Investigation Department interrogated the well-known human rights defender
and subsequently charged him with operating an illegal enterprise, tax evasion, and abuse of official power. A Baku court ordered Jafarov sent to pretrial detention for three months. Two days before his arrest, police searched his house and confiscated computers and written materials.
Together with other independent human rights groups in Azerbaijan, Jafarov had been compiling a list of political prisoners and pressing for their release. He had carried out several campaigns against politically motivated imprisonment, including the Sing for Democracy campaign (later renamed Art for Democracy) in the lead-up to the Eurovision Song Contest in Baku in May 2012. Jafarov was planning a Sport for Rights campaign in the period before the European Olympic Games, which Azerbaijan will host in summer 2015.
On July 30, 2014, authorities charged
director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy (IPD), and her husband, the historian
, with economic crimes and treason. They are currently in custody pending investigation. The same day, a court sent Leyla Yunus to pretrial custody for three months. Her husband was released under police supervision because of his poor health. But on August 5, police arrested him as he was on his way to deliver food and medication to his wife. Despite his health concerns, the court sent him to pretrial detention for three months for allegedly violating the terms of his house arrest. According to her lawyer, Leyla has experienced physical and psychological pressure from her cellmate and a prison guard, but the authorities have failed to address it.
On April 28, the Azerbaijani authorities had prevented the Yunuses from boarding a flight to attend a conference in Brussels, confiscated their passports, questioned them at length, and searched their home and office. The authorities told the Yunuses that they are barred from traveling abroad because they are witnesses in a criminal investigation against Rauf Mirgadirov, a journalist who was arrested in April, even though Azerbaijani law has no provision barring people who are designated witnesses in criminal investigations from leaving the country.
Leyla Yunus’ organization, IPD, focuses on combating politically motivated prosecutions, corruption, violence against women, and unlawful evictions. The Yunuses have also been involved in projects aimed at improving people-to-people dialogue between people in Azerbaijan and Armenia against the background of the unresolved conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, a primarily ethnic Armenian-populated autonomous enclave in Azerbaijan.
In August, police searched the office of the Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety (IRFS), a leading media-monitoring group, confiscated computers and reports, and sealed the office shut, forcing the group to end its operations. Authorities repeatedly questioned IRFS employees and prevented its director,
, from leaving the country. He is currently in hiding.
In December 2013, authorities
, chairman of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDS), a leading independent election-monitoring group in Azerbaijan. He faced charges including tax evasion and abuse of office, allegedly for intending to influence election results, as well as charges related to the group’s lack of state registration, even though Mammadli unsuccessfully tried to register it many times.
The center had monitored the 2013 October presidential vote and concluded that it was neither free nor fair. On October 27, about a week after the center’s preliminary
was published, the prosecutor general’s office opened an investigation against the group. Four days later, officials searched its office, confiscating equipment, financial documents, and material and findings that were needed for the final report, preventing its publication.
of Mammadli and his two codefendants and colleagues,
, who had been freed on bail, started on April 21, 2014. On May 26, Mammadli was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison. Suleymanli was sentenced to three-and-a-half years, and Mammadov to a two-year suspended sentence.
On July 16, a court sentenced
, a prominent social rights campaigner and head of the independent group Intelligent Citizen, to six years for criminal hooliganism and illegal possession of a knife. Police had arrested Huseynli on March 31 in Ganja, in northwest Azerbaijan. Two days later police released him on his own recognizance, pending an investigation on trumped-up criminal charges of hooliganism for allegedly attempting to stab someone. On April 24, he was also charged with illegal possession of a knife. Huseynli denies the charges, saying that he had never before seen the alleged victim.
Huseynli’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that in the months before his arrest police and local authorities had questioned Huseynli and warned him to stop accepting foreign funding and to cut all ties with foreign organizations. Huseynli wrote an apology letter to President Aliyev on August 5 asking for his release, but he remains behind bars.
, two rights defenders associated with the nongovernmental group Kur Civil Union, in April and June 2012, respectively, in apparent retribution for their work protecting flood victims in southern Azerbaijan. Gulaliyev was released pending investigation in June 2012. Amiraslanov, who was sentenced to two years in prison on spurious charges of weapons possession, was paroled in December 2013.
Though the men have been released from detention, police have advised them that they continue to be under investigation for unspecified activity, their movements are restricted, and both are required to report weekly to local police. In August 2013 Gulaliyev was not allowed to leave the country for surgery abroad.
On August 11, 2014, police arrested
, a member of the opposition Popular Front Party in the Sabirabad district. For two days, police refused to inform the lawyer and his family where Adilov was being held. When he appeared in court, at a hearing at which he was denied access to a lawyer of his choosing, police claimed that drugs were found both in Adilov’s pocket and under his pillow during a search of his home. The court then sent him to pretrial custody for three months. Adilov’s lawyer, who was able to see Adilov while he was in detention, told Human Rights Watch that Adilov was beaten in police custody. Adilov’s lawyer filed a complaint over the ill-treatment but received a reply that the complaint was groundless. If convicted, Adilov faces five to 12 years in prison.
On August 2, authorities arrested
an activist with the opposition party Musavat from the Tartar district, on charges of criminal hooliganism. Mammad represented Musavat in his hometown for more than 10 years and had also recently worked to defend local residents’ property rights. On June 23, two women he did not recognize attacked him in the street. Believing it to be a staged attack, Mammad complained to the police. While at the police station, Mammad was arrested for attacking the women and a court later sent him to pretrial detention for two months, pending an investigation into hooliganism charges.
In March a court sentenced
, a prominent political analyst and chairman of the opposition group REAL (Republican Alternative), to seven years in prison, and
, deputy chair of the opposition political party Musavat and a columnist with the opposition daily
to five years for allegedly instigating violence on January 24, 2013, in the Ismayilli district, a regional center northwest of Baku. Anti-government
riots broke out in Ismayilli
when a relative of the local governor drove his car into an electricity pole and started a fight with a taxi driver parked nearby. The next day, there were several clashes between police and an angry mob of protesters calling for the governor’s resignation.
traveled to Ismayilli on January 24 to find out firsthand information about the developments there and reported about it on his blog. Yagublu also travelled to Ismayilli on assignment for his paper.
In May the European Court of Human Rights found that the authorities detained Mammadov without any evidence to reasonably suspect him of having committed the offence with which he was charged and concluded that the actual purpose of his detention “was to silence or punish [Mammadov] for criticizing the Government and attempting to disseminate what he believed was true information that the Government was trying to hide.”
In January a court sentenced
, a former history professor and adviser to the chair of the opposition Musavat party, to six years in prison on hooliganism charges. Police had
him on June 27, 2013, after a Nagorno-Karabakh war veteran filed a complaint alleging that Sadigov had beaten him. In July, an appeals court reduced the sentence to four years.
In November 2013 a court sentenced
, a religious scholar and political activist, to two years in prison on illegal drug possession charges. Police had
Bagirov in March 2013, one week after his Friday sermon in a mosque sharply criticizing the government.
On May 6, 2014, the Baku Grave Crimes Court
to prison terms ranging from six to eight years on bogus charges related to an alleged plan to instigate violence at a March 2013 protest that the authorities violently dispersed before it began. Seven of them –
– are from the youth opposition movement NIDA (
means exclamation mark in Azeri), which was founded in 2010 and campaigns for democratic reforms and the rule of law in Azerbaijan. The eighth,
, is a member of another youth movement, Azad Genchlik (Free Youth). During the trial, at least three activists alleged that police had beaten them while they were in National Security Ministry custody, but the prosecutor’s office failed to effectively investigate the allegations.
In June and July 2014, Guliyev and Novruzlu wrote appeals to President Aliyev from prison, repenting for their “crimes” and requesting a pardon. They then dismissed their lawyers. They had previously renounced their NIDA memberships. They remain in prison.
On May 6 police detained
, 19, another NIDA member, when police violently dispersed about 200 people gathered outside the courtroom to protest the verdict against the NIDA activists. He was initially sentenced to 20 days of administrative (misdemeanor) detention, but as his term was about to expire, the authorities charged him with the criminal offense of resisting police and sent him to a pretrial detention facility to await trial. Ayyubzade’s trial began in August; if convicted he faces up to three years in prison.
Social Media Activists
Over the past year, the authorities have arrested and convicted on bogus drug possession charges at least seven Facebook and other social media activists. None had access to a lawyer of their choosing during their initial interrogations or remand hearings, while at least three complained of ill-treatment in police custody. In addition to the cases below, another Facebook activist is in pretrial custody facing drug-related charges but his family requested that his name not be publicized after police threatened he would face a longer prison term if they spoke out about the case.
On November 22, 2013,
police arrested Abdul Abilov
, 32, a social media activist and the administrator of the critical Facebook pages “Yaltaqlara dur deyək!” (“Stop those flattering the regime!”) and “Seçki saxtakarlığı” (“Election fraud”) in Baku on narcotics-related charges. Police claimed they found drugs both in Abilov’s pocket and in his home. Both Facebook pages were shut down shortly after police seized his computer during a search of his home.
Abilov’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that at his trial Abilov said that the drugs were planted and that during his interrogation police asked him questions only about his critical posts, political activism, and relationship to the opposition Popular Front Party. Abilov was denied access to a lawyer of his own choosing during initial police interrogation and at his pretrial detention hearing.
On May 27, 2014, the Grave Crimes Court in Baku sentenced Abilov to five-and-a-half years in prison.
In July a court sentenced
, 19, a popular blogger, administrator of the Facebook page “AzTV-dən seçmələr” (“Exclusives from AzTV”), and founder of the pro-opposition Axın (Stream) youth movement, to five years in prison on trumped up narcotics possession charges. Police had arrested Mammadov in January and denied him the opportunity to inform his family about his detention or retain a lawyer of his choosing before he was sent to pretrial custody for three months on January 25.
“Exclusives from AzTV” regularly criticized the country’s leading state television channel’s coverage of events. It featured satire and critical posts on alleged corruption, police conduct, violation of property rights, and repression of youth activists.
Prior to his son’s arrest, police twice summoned Mammadov’s father and warned him to keep his son, then studying abroad, away from opposition political activity. Two days before Mammadov’s arrest, police invited Mammadov and his father for a “talk,” confiscated his laptop, and demanded that Mammadov close the “Exclusives from AzTV” Facebook page.
Mammadov’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that police beat Mammadov in custody, although the prosecutor’s office said its investigation found no evidence of a beating. Forensic exam results showed no signs of illicit drug use.
, 18, a Facebook activist, one week before Azerbaijan’s October 9, 2013 presidential vote and a court sentenced him in April 2014 to five years in prison on narcotics possession charges. Based in Khachmaz, northern Azerbaijan, Murselli was active on social media during the lead-up to the presidential election, when he posted on Facebook about social problems in the region and alleged corruption and nepotism and called on people to vote for a political opposition candidate, Jamil Hasanly. Murselli had also participated in pre-election opposition demonstrations and posted video footage of the rallies online.
Police warned Murselli’s family that he could get a lengthy prison sentence if the family publicized the arrest to the media or retained a lawyer of their choosing; instead, a state-appointed lawyer defended him. On June 23 he wrote an apology letter to President Aliyev asking for a pardon. In July, the Appeals Court reduced Murselli’s prison term to two years. He dismissed his lawyer after he wrote the letter.
, a well-known blogger who actively criticized the Azerbaijani government on Facebook and other social media, in May 2013, and a court convicted him in November 2013 of dubious drug charges and sentenced him to nine years in prison.
On July 23, 2014, police arrested
, a well-known blogger and administer of the highly popular “Basta!” (“Enough!”) and “Istefa” (“Resign”) Facebook pages on dubious charges of drug possession, and a court sent him to pretrial detention for three months. The Facebook pages, with thousands of followers, served as platforms for criticism against human rights violations, social problems, and corruption. Karimov’s brother,
, who was arrested six days earlier and sent to pretrial detention for three months, claimed that he was pressured to sign a confession to drug-related charges and was asked questions by police about his brother’s activities. His family believes that he was targeted for his brother’s activism.
Both brothers complained of ill-treatment and torture in custody at the Organized Crime Unit of the Interior Ministry, but the authorities failed to investigate those claims. Interior Ministry officials said in a statement that Faraj Karimov was accused of advertising psychotropic substances on social networks and that drugs were found on him during the police search.
On July 14, police arrested
a social media activist in the Shamkir district, in northwestern Azerbaijan
on dubious narcotics possession charges. Muradov often posted caricatures of government officials and critical posts on Facebook regarding social problems in his hometown. He was detained by plainclothes policemen and was interrogated on his Facebook activism at the Shamkir police station. Police also searched his house without showing a search warrant and confiscated his computer. Soon after his arrest, local police warned Muradov’s family not to publicize the arrest, as Muradov might be released. After two weeks, the family was told that he faces drug charges. In a letter from a pretrial detention center to his family, Muradov said that under pressure he had confessed to the possession of drugs.
On August 29, 2014, police arrested
, a leading columnist with opposition daily
(Liberty) and an anchor for the Turkey-based pro-opposition television channel Azerbaijan Saati (Azerbaijan Hour), on trumped up hooliganism charges. Haziyev was assaulted by a man he did not know near his house and defended himself by striking the man with the bottle he was holding. The police quickly appeared and arrested the journalist. He was charged with “hooliganism committed with a weapon or an object used as a weapon” (article 221.3) and was sent to pretrial custody for two months.
If convicted, Haziyev faces up to seven years in prison. The Azerbaijani government has long persecuted Haziyev, subjecting him to previous periods of detention and torture and repeated warnings to stop criticizing the president.
On April 19, police
, an outspoken Ankara-based correspondent for the independent Azerbaijani newspapers
at Baku’s international airport after he was deported from Turkey, where he had lived with his family since 2010.
had reported on political developments and human rights issues in Azerbaijan and Turkey and often criticized the deteriorating political and human rights situations in both countries.
On April 21, 2014, Baku’s Nasimi District Court sent Mirgadirov to pretrial custody for three months, pending an investigation on espionage charges. The charges stem from his involvement in nongovernmental diplomacy between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In 2008-2009 Mirgadirov participated in meetings in Armenia organized by nongovernmental organizations aimed at improving people-to-people dialogue between the conflicting sides.
If convicted, Mirgadirov could face a sentence of 10 years to life.
On September 18, 2013, the National Security Ministry
, editor of the news website
and a reporter for the opposition daily
. Police searched Hashimli’s home in Baku and claimed to find a pistol and 30 hand grenades. Elchin Sadigov, Hashimli’s lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that the police did not present a search warrant. Hashimli faces charges of smuggling and illegal weapons possession. The lawyer told Human Rights Watch that Hashimli was granted access to his client only a week after his arrest.
During his trial, which is ongoing, Hashimli stated that he had been beaten and ill-treated while in National Security Ministry detention. The ministry refuted the claim, and the prosecutor’s office did not investigate.
On May 15, 2014, the court sentenced Hashimli to eight years in prison.
In November 2013 a court sentenced
, a journalist and editor of the pro-opposition newspaper
news portal, to four years in prison on hooliganism charges. Police arrested Alibeyli on July 31 and alleged that a victim accused Alibeyli of hitting the victim in the face with a stone.
In September 2013 a court sentenced
, former editor-in-chief of the
newspaper and the deputy head of the Talysh Cultural Center, to five years in prison for illegal drug possession, treason, and incitement of hatred, hostility, and ethnic discrimination charges. Police had
Mammadov in June 2012, one week after NTV, a pro-Kremlin Russian station, broadcasted an interview with him in which he said that a satirical political rap song that went viral on YouTube did more to promote Azerbaijan than the government’s public relations efforts.
On March 12, 2013, a court sentenced
, the opposition newspaper
editor-in-chief, to nine years in prison on questionable extortion charges apparently brought in retaliation for
critical reporting. He remains in prison.
In December 2013 a court sentenced
, the editor-in-chief of
, an Islamist-oriented website, to 10 years on charges of illegal drug possession, the import and distribution of religious literature without appropriate authorization, calling for the violent overthrow of the authorities, and incitement of national, racial, or religious hatred. In the lead-up to the Eurovision Song Contest hosted by Azerbaijan in 2012, Aliyev had published a series of articles criticizing the government’s spending to host the event and also spoke against a proposed gay pride parade in Azerbaijan. He remains in prison.
In April 2013 a court sentenced
, the editor of
, an Islamist news website, to eight years in prison on five charges, including illegal weapons possession and organizing and participating in public disturbances. Police arrested Guliyev on September 8, 2012, as he protested with a group of devout Muslims against the inclusion of dancing women in a local folklore festival. He remains in prison.
Another journalist remains under investigation on spurious charges in apparent retaliation for her critical reporting;
investigative journalist who is known for her extensive reporting on government corruption, including the businesses of the ruling family. Several times since mid-February 2014, police have
her as a witness to an investigation of leaks of state secrets. The authorities summoned Ismayilova a few days after pro-government media outlets claimed she had handed files on Azerbaijani opposition politicians to United States Senate staff members who were allegedly working as US intelligence agents, claims denied by the US embassy. Ismayilova has been a victim of an orchestrated smear campaign in the past. In early 2012 an explicit video of Ismayilova appeared online containing intimate and illegally obtained images of her.
, a human rights lawyer
sentenced in February 2013
to eight years in prison on bogus extortion charges, was pardoned and released on May 26, 2014.
, a freelance journalist who has faced years of persecution as reprisal for his coverage of allegations of government corruption, was sentenced on August 27, 2012, to four and a half years in prison on bogus charges of illegal border crossing and inciting mass disorder. He was pardoned on May 26, 2014, and has been released.
On July 3 the Sumgait District Court
, a 22-year-old activist with the Azerbaijani opposition Popular Front Party, to two and a half years in prison on drug charges. On May 8, Azerbaijani authorities released Malikov on probation, and 18 days later he was pardoned under a presidential decree. Prior to his release, state media reported that Malikov had renounced his opposition party membership and joined the ruling party.
, the head of the Support for Democracy, an independent group in southeastern Azerbaijan, and
, one the group’s members, faced extortion charges after making allegations that local authorities misappropriated state money. In March they wrote a joint letter to President Ilham Aliyev asking him to take measures against corruption.
On April 4 the court sentenced Gasimov to 10 days in detention on a misdemeanor charge for allegedly swearing in public. Just before he was to be released, authorities charged him with extortion, and a court sent him to pretrial custody for three months.
On May 13 police also detained Emil Mammadli on extortion charges, and a local court sent him to pretrial custody for three months. In a media statement, an Interior Ministry spokesman claimed that Gasimov had given an incriminating statement against Mammadli, alleging that he had extorted money on Mammadli’s orders. Mammadli denies the allegations and called them politically motivated.
In August, after their trial commenced, Mammadli wrote an apology letter to President Aliyev, asking for release. On September 26 the Lenkeran District Grave Crimes Court sentenced Mammadli and Gasimov to two years on probation and released them from the courtroom.