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Azeri police shut down public policy workshop, harass organisers

(IRFS/IFEX) - The Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) resolutely condemns the harassment and unlawful detention of civil society organizations (CSO) representatives in the Khachmaz, a Northern city of Azerbaijan and calls on the government to put an end to a carefully coordinated witch hunt against civil society and immediately take concrete steps to improve legal and regulatory frameworks to safeguard CSO-enabling environments, sustainability and independent CSOs with public interest agendas.

IRFS is dismayed that ahead of the presidential elections, the government has engaged in a campaign to silence and discredit journalists, activists and nongovernmental organizations.

In an escalation of the government crackdown on civil society, early on February 12th, the local authorities in Khachmaz harassed and detained IRFS Program Manager and lawyer Gunay Ismayilova and Javid Nabiyev, a staff member of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDS).

The two civil society activists were on mission to Khachmaz to run a workshop on citizen participation in public policy as part of a larger initiative, funded by the European Union and USAID. The skills-building workshop was abruptly closed after local police raided the venue just before the workshop started. The workshop, organized by Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center, brought together approximately 12 local activists.

The plain-clothed [police officers] broke up an EMDS workshop in Sahil hotel in Khachmaz and rounded up all of the participants, seized workshop participants' and trainers' documents and personal belongings, and then simply kicked them out of the venue despite the fact that the course was held upon prior agreement with the management of the a/m hotel.

The trainers rushed to the Khachmaz Local Community Information Center to escape the harassment, where they encountered even more aggressive pressure from the police. During police raid, trainer Javid Nabiyev was brutally beaten by police officers. The trainers were eventually arrested and detained at the police office for eight hours.

The trainers were eventually released pending further investigation. Gunay Ismayilova, a female lawyer aged 25, said: “For all these eight hours of physiological pressure, I was tortured [by] being kept hungry and thirsty, under stress and fear of losing my freedom.”

Yesterday's [12 February] raid on a civil society workshop by Khachmaz police was arbitrary, and an illegitimate infringement on freedom of association and assembly, says IRFS Chair Emin Huseynov.

Ismayilova and Nabiyev appear to be the latest targets of the authorities' use of seemingly trumped-up criminal charges to intimidate Azerbaijan's human rights defenders and social activists. "Many other human rights workers and journalists have been harassed, intimidated and arbitrarily detained as part of the ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression in the country ahead of the elections. These cases cast doubt on whether the country is ready to hold fair elections", said Huseynov.

This move follows a widening crackdown on civil society, such as the introduction of a new bill tightening control on the activities of NGOs, and the refusal by hotels and conference centers to provide space for NGOs.

IRFS states that this action is an illegal restriction on citizens' right to freedom of association and assembly, which is contrary to Azerbaijan's obligations undertaken before the Council of Europe, OSCE and the United Nations.

IRFS calls on the Azerbaijani government to put an end to the vicious circle of harassment and arrest of civil society representatives and immediately embark on the concrete reform to improve legal and regulatory frameworks to safeguard CSO enabling environments, sustainability and independent CSO public interest agenda roles.

IRFS urges the local and international community to take immediate action to prevent Ismayilova and Nabiyev from being unjustly incriminated with charges under Article 315 of the Criminal Code/Resistance or application of violence concerning the representative of authority.

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