As I sat waiting on 24 June for President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan to address the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Europe’s top human rights body, I did not have high expectations that he would acknowledge the scope of his country’s human rights problems. But I also did not expect him to deny outright the existence of any human rights problems in Azerbaijan; and call those who challenged him, liars; only that is exactly what happened.
Aliyev eloquently described his country’s impressive economic growth and boasted of its accession to 59 Council of Europe conventions. Many of the guarantees in those conventions, however, as well as many of the commitments undertaken, over the 13 years since Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe, remain on paper only. But Aliyev boldly kept repeating that all fundamental rights are respected in Azerbaijan: ‘We have freedom of political activity… As we have free Internet and no censorship … media freedom is one of the assets of modern Azerbaijan and we are proud of it… Freedom of association and assembly is also fully provided in Azerbaijan.’
The President described a fantasy land that every one of us would love to live in.
A fantasy land
As one Azerbaijani friend of mine later dryly noted, the President described a fantasy land that every one of us would love to live in, but the reality is that my friend, like dozens of others, had to flee Azerbaijan in 2012, fearing persecution for his human rights work.
In the past two years, Azerbaijani authorities have brought or threatened unfounded criminal charges against at least 40 political activists, journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders, most of whom are behind bars. But President Aliyev was adamant that Azerbaijan has no political prisoners, and called the Deputies who raised the issue, liars; and he used the Parliamentary Assembly’s failure to adopt a resolution on the subject in January 2013 as proof. He kept repeating that no one is in prison in Azerbaijan for what they write. That might be the case literally, although criminal defamation still exists on the books.
The authorities use a range of criminal charges… even treason, to silence their critics.
Instead, as we have repeatedly documented, the authorities use a range of criminal charges, including drug and weapons possession, incitement to violence, hooliganism, tax evasion, and even treason to silence their critics. In many cases the flimsiness of the charges and their true purpose are obvious – for example in more than a half dozen cases, police arrested activists on drug charges but questioned them almost exclusively about their activism.
Just last month, the European Court of Human Rights found that the Azerbaijani Government arrested Ilgar Mammadov, one of the country’s top opposition political activists, ‘to silence or punish [him] for criticizing the Government.’ Mammadov remains in prison.
Aliyev, of course, did not mention the other resolution the Parliamentary Assembly adopted on Azerbaijan in January 2013. It said, among other things, that ‘[t]he combination of the restrictive implementation of freedoms with unfair trials and the undue influence of the executive, results in the systemic detention of people who may be considered prisoners of conscience.’
In the past two years, the authorities have imposed onerous reporting obligations for advocacy groups.
I did not expect President Aliyev to discuss the closing space for independent organisations. But the stifling of these groups is alarming. In the past two years, the authorities have imposed onerous reporting obligations for advocacy groups, establishing prohibitive fines for those that fail to comply. They have also refused to register many groups they expect to be critical of the Government. The Government requires non-governmental groups to register any grants they get, in order to use the funds, but in the past few months the authorities have repeatedly refused to register grants received by certain groups that are critical of the Government. Groups the Government refused to register have no legal means of financing their activities, pushing them to the margins of the law. For example, in May, a court in Baku sentenced Anar Mammadli, head of a prominent election watchdog group, to five years in prison for illegal entrepreneurship, for operating without registration and other charges.
Getting off scot free
Aliyev’s speech suggests that he believes he can simply let criticism by international human rights bodies roll off his back.Aliyev’s speech suggests that he believes he can simply let criticism by international human rights bodies roll off his back. The Council of Europe leadership and the Parliamentary Assembly should not let this happen. It should remind the Azerbaijani leadership that credibility is conferred not by titles but by respecting the fundamental freedoms the Council of Europe is built upon.
The divide between the world the President described, and the harsh realities for human rights groups and other government critics, has grown even since last month when Azerbaijan took over the six-month rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers. If President Aliyev was this belligerent with Parliamentary Assembly members, then we should all be very fearful of what the future holds for his critics at home.