(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - 24 January 2012 - Member organisations of the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan (IPGA) are deeply concerned by the continued politically motivated imprisonment of persons in Azerbaijan for exercising their right to freedom of expression. The IPGA calls on the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to take immediate action to ensure the release of these persons and to hold Azerbaijan accountable for its obligations as a Member State.
Although Azerbaijan is bound by the European Convention on Human Rights and international law to respect and protect the right to freedom of expression, the Azerbaijani authorities have failed to fulfil this commitment and frequently violate this right. Journalists, bloggers, activists and ordinary citizens in Azerbaijan face harassment, attacks and imprisonment for voicing opinions critical of the authorities.
The IPGA is particularly concerned by the detention and imprisonment of a number of persons on the basis of exercising their right to freedom of expression:
* Avaz Zeynalli, the Editor-In-Chief of Khural newspaper, who is serving pre-trial detention on trumped-up charges of extortion and bribery, based solely on the unsubstantiated claim by a parliamentary deputy. He faces up to 12 years in prison if convicted;
* Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, the blogger and civic activist who was sentenced to two years' imprisonment on charges of evading military service after he took part in organising a pro-democracy protest in March 2011;
* Vidadi Iskenderov, the human rights defender who, following his participation in several opposition political protests in March and April 2011, was sentenced to two years' imprisonment on charges of interfering with the conduct of the November 2010 parliamentary elections;
* Fifteen political activists who were sentenced to lengthy prison sentences for organising a series of protests in March and April 2011 inspired by the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa; and
* Ruslan Bashirli, the leader of the opposition Yeni Fikir youth movement who was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment on charges of coup-plotting in the run-up to the 2005 parliamentary elections.
The IPGA also recalls with concern the recent imprisonment of others on the basis of exercising their right to freedom of expression:
* Jabbar Savalan, the opposition political activist who spent nearly a year in prison on charges of drug possession following his calls on Facebook for pro-democracy protests;
* Eynulla Fatullayev, the Editor-In-Chief of the former critical independent newspapers Realniy Azerbaijan and Gundelik Azerbaijan, who spent more than four years in prison on charges of defamation, supporting terrorism, inciting hatred, tax evasion, and drug possession;
* Emin Abdullayev and Adnan Hajizade, the youth activists and video bloggers who spent nearly a year and a half in prison on charges of hooliganism after posting to YouTube a satirical video critical of the authorities; and
* Ganimat Zahid, the Editor-In-Chief of the critical opposition newspaper Azadliq, who spent more than two years in prison on charges of hooliganism and inflicting minor bodily harm.
In light of the 26 January 2012 meeting of the PACE Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, the IPGA underscores the gravity of the situation of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. PACE must hold Azerbaijan accountable for its behaviour as a Council of Europe Member State.
The IPGA calls on PACE to take immediate action to address this situation, including:
* Demanding the immediate and unconditional release of those currently imprisoned on politically motivated charges and the cessation of arrests of persons for politically motivated reasons in Azerbaijan;
* Taking every possible measure to ensure cooperation by the Azerbaijani authorities with the Special Rapporteur on Political Prisoners, including by immediately granting him a visa to undertake a visit to the country per his mandate;
* Increasing efforts to monitor Azerbaijan's compliance with its obligations under the European Convention, including calling for an immediate visit to the country by the Co-rapporteurs for the Honouring of Obligations and Commitments by Azerbaijan, including to the exclave of Nakhchivan, to assess the current situation and to follow up on concerns raised in their May 2010 report on the functioning of democratic institutions in Azerbaijan;
* Reviewing Azerbaijan's implementation of the recommendations made in Resolution 1750 (2010) on the functioning of democratic institutions in Azerbaijan and taking immediate action to address shortcomings; and
* Calling for the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers to intensify efforts to ensure Azerbaijan's execution of judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, particularly those cases included on the list of the Special Rapporteur on Political Prisoners.
* The International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan is a coalition of 20 international NGOs working to promote and protect freedom of expression in Azerbaijan.
* A delegation of members of the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan will travel to Strasbourg to raise concerns regarding the freedom of expression situation in Azerbaijan during the 23-27 January 2012 PACE session.
Committee to Protect Journalists
Index on Censorship
Reporters Without Borders
Human Rights House Foundation
Media Diversity Institute
Norwegian Helsinki Committee