The U.S. State Department has called on the Azerbaijani authorities not to use COVID-19 to silence civil society and opposition voices in the country.
“Azerbaijani authorities have harassed and arrested – and in one case institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital – opposition members and others who have criticized the government,” the State Department
in a statement on Monday.
On 2 April, Agil Humbatov, a member of the opposition Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA), was taken to a psychiatric hospital shortly after harshly criticizing President Ilham Aliyev and his government for the socio-economic situation in the country on social networks. After being detained at the main psychiatric hospital in Baku for nearly two months, Humbatov was released last month.
The fight against COVID-19 should not be used as an excuse for repression against political opponents, the State Department statement elaborated.
A new wave of repression against the political opponents, particularly members of the PFPA, started after Aliyev called for the removal of the opposition in his annual Novruz message.
“I have already said this but want to reiterate that we will not be the losing side and there will be no place for traitors and corrupt representatives of the fifth column in the new political configuration,” Aliyev
on 19 March. The "fifth column" refers to oppositional elements in Azerbaijani society.
Since 24 March, the government has enforced a special quarantine across the country to prevent a rise of the infection rate.
Eleven more members of the PFPA were detained after a demonstration in Baku on 14 July, which was held in support of the army concerning the recent deadly border skirmishes over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
A day later, Aliyev accused the PFPA of exploiting the domestic situation. Calling the PFPA traitors, Aliyev said that the issues with the opposition party should be settled once and for all.
“We have to finish this job with the fifth column, it can not continue this way. Tolerance is absolutely unacceptable here… At the root of this hostility is the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, [and] its ugly, treacherous heads, cowards and fugitives, who consider themselves leaders,” Aliyev
during the cabinet meeting on 15 July.
Following the president's speech, party members began to be detained.
Azerbaijan's Prosecutor General's Office and the Interior Ministry said in a statement that a criminal case had been launched into the incident and an investigation was underway. However, the authorities declined to say how many people were detained during the demonstration.
Some human rights activists estimate that 70 people were detained on the night of 14-15 July.
Ali Karimli, chairman of the PFPA, said Aliyev is now using the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to suppress the opposition.
“We did everything to ensure that the government did not have any excuse for provocation and repression,” Karimli said adding the government does not need an excuse to provoke and repress.
“Although there were no grounds, the authorities again used the Karabakh rally for further repressions against the PFPA.”