In its recent
, the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) has stated that Azerbaijan has used the pandemic period to intensify its pressure on its political rivals and critical voices, and called for the authorities to respect human rights and take restrictive measures that are in line with international rights standards.
“Azerbaijan’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is marked by the intensified levels of crackdown on the political opposition and other critics through intimidation, arrest and detention, disproportionate police violence in handling violations of the quarantine measures and little to no public scrutiny of the authorities’ crisis response due to limited information provided to the public and the de facto censorship of criticism on the authorities’ actions,” the Brussels-based international organization said in its report.
According to the IPHR report, political, social and economic rights have been affected by the restrictive measures initiated by Azerbaijani authorities to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The first COVID-19 case was reported in Azerbaijan on 28 February in an individual coming from Iran. This prompted the government to close the borders with neighboring countries and impose limitations on business trips abroad. Various preventive measures were introduced, postponing all mass events and activities including the suspension of educational institutions across the country. As the infection rate was growing, a special quarantine regime was introduced on 31 March to address the management of the pandemic in the country, which was later extended with various timelines until 31 August.
The status of this regime is questionable, according to the IPHR report, as it is not defined in any domestic laws and is unconstitutional. “Unlike in the case of emergency situations, this special regime introduced by a decree of the Cabinet of Ministers is not subject to parliamentary supervision or constitutional review,” the report added.
People over the age of 65 were not allowed to leave their houses, while gatherings of more than ten people in public spaces were prohibited. Under this regime, people were permitted to leave their living area with a special permit, which was limited to 2 hours per day. As lifting some restriction late May led to increasing rate of COVID-19 cases, the government introduced a tightened quarantine regime, prohibiting people from leaving their flats unless there is a “immediate danger to life and health.”
Under these restrictions Azerbaijan, will be remembered in history as the country “using the pandemic as a pretext to continue their harassment of opposition groups and further clamp down on critical voices,” the report said.
“Such an approach from the leadership was clear since the outset of the crisis,” it added.
In his Novruz speech on 19 March, President Ilham Aliyev said that the opposition will not be tolerated, labeling them a “fifth column.” The president underlined that the isolation of the representatives of the opposition was “a historical necessity.” On 15 July, in his comment over the 14 July rally to protest military escalations with Armenia, Aliyev accused the opposition of being a “provocative group”, calling the opposition “worse than Armenians”, after which a new wave of arrests of opposition members began. The harassment of political opponents of the government intensified with members of the main opposition Popular Front Party (PFPA) ending behind bars.
Meanwhile, the report also added that freedom of expression was under great pressure during the pandemic period in Azerbaijan.
“Azerbaijan is notorious for its very repressive environment for journalists and media outlets despite its constitutional and international obligations to protect and promote freedom of expression in the country,” it added.
The country was ranked 166th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 World Press Freedom Index.
To fight against disinformation during the pandemic, the parliament made an amendment to the law on information and protection of information, according to which distribution of “false information”, though it is not yet defined what it constitutes, might cause an administrative penalty, a fine of 500 AZN – 1500 AZN for individuals, 1500 AZN – 2500 AZN for legal persons, and one-month administrative arrest for individuals.
Ten were put under administrative arrest for allegedly spreading false information on social media, 18 were fined and a warning was issued against 127, the report said, referencing official records from after the law was enacted.
“Although the need to fight false information during a pandemic emergency is necessary, such vaguely worded amendments as to what constitutes ‘false information’ or information ‘dangerous to the public’ raises serious concerns of arbitrary and abusive application of provisions against those who may report and criticise the authorities on their handling of the pandemic in the country’s repressive context for media freedom,” the report said.
“It is likely to have a chilling effect on those who would otherwise dare to express their opinions on social networks, where independent debates on issues of public interest mainly take place in Azerbaijan.”
The new amendments drew criticism from the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, which said that they “should not impede the work of journalists and their ability to report on the pandemic.”
Journalists reporting on the pandemic have been subjected to administrative and criminal charges.
Addressing various other issues, such as domestic violence, oppressed minorities including the LGBTQI+ community, and the safety conditions in prisons and hospitals, the IPHR report urges the authorities to ensure transparency and publicity on the pandemic situation and apply measures proportionally and when necessary.
“Release all those detained and imprisoned for their political views or criticism during the quarantine regime and put an end to such retaliatory practice,” the IPHR said in its address to the government.