On February 6, Ilham Aliyev visited Brussels to discuss a new partnership agreement between Azerbaijan and the EU.
On the eve of the meeting, 76 human rights organizations sent a letter to the leadership of the EU, calling on its leaders to make use of the meeting and present Ilham Aliyev with concrete obligations.
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a statement prior to the meeting.
“European Union officials should press President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan to free unjustly imprisoned political activists, journalists, and other government critics [and] to end the crackdown on independent groups and allow them to operate without undue government interference”.
The statement notes that the European Union has always praised courageous human rights defenders and thrown its full weight behind them.
Lotte Leicht, the director of HRW, said that if this is considered the start of a new era of cooperation, the time has come for the EU to fulfill its promise:
“Now is the time to make good on those EU promises and not sweep Aliyev’s crackdown on dissent and basic human rights under the red carpet”.
Leicht noted that cooperation between the EU and Azerbaijan should take place in accordance with Article 21 of the Lisbon Treaty, that the principles of rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms should be followed.
In negotiations with Azerbaijan the EU ought to demand a development of the situation with human rights, which includes emphasizing the need for the immediate and unconditional release of all political activists and journalists.
“Deepening engagement without securing concrete rights improvements would signal to the people wrongfully imprisoned in Azerbaijan and to those bravely continuing their work in the face of government hostility that the EU has abandoned them”, she noted.
HRW noted that in 2016 it was precisely after international pressure that the government of Azerbaijan freed seventeen political prisoners, human rights activists and journalists who were arrested for political reasons.
However, it is noted that just in 2016-2017 pressure from the government has increased even more, dozens of political activists were arrested on false charges connected with narcotics, illegal arms possession, tax evasion, hooliganism and sometimes even treason.
The statement notes that in May of 2016 two young activists were arrested: Bayram Mammadov and Qiyas Ibrahimov, who wrote “Happy slave day” on a monument to Heydar Aliyev.
They were charged with narcotics possession, and each of them received ten years in jail. One more member of the NIDA youth movement, Elgiz Qahraman, was also accused of similar crimes and received five-and-a-half years in prison.
The organization noted that in recent years the government of Azerbaijan has strengthened attempts to restrict the activities of independent groups and the critical press; alongside persecution and arrests, harsh laws are adopted which impede the activities of independent organizations.
It was also noted that more than ten activists arrested for political reasons in 2013-2015, including leader of the REAL movement Ilqar Mammadov, remain in prison, despite the fact that the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has on multiple occasions addressed the government of Azerbaijan demanding their release. Back in 2014, the European Court of Human Rights resolved that the arrest of Mammadov was baseless and he should be freed.
Human Rights Watch notes that, in order to avoid further persecution, freed political activists are leaving the country, several – the journalist Khadija Ismail and lawyer Intiqam Aliyev – are forbidden from entering the country, and several have ceased their journalistic activities.
“Because of increased pressure on civil society, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative presented the government of Azerbaijan with an ultimatum. In 2015, Azerbaijan’s status in the organization was reduced from ‘permanent member’ to the level of ‘candidate country’. In 2016 the EITI refused to change Azerbaijan’s status and demanded developments in the situation with human rights, and reforms creating the conditions for NGO activity. In response to these demands the government repealed several laws, but these surface-level changes didn’t affect the situation overall”, noted the statement.