Since its last UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR), Azerbaijan has continued its crackdown on activists and journalists through politically motivated arrests, long pre-trial detentions and imprisonment. Arrests of activists and journalists on spurious charges, including drug possession and possession of illegal weapons, are used as a pretext to detain - and thereby silence - critical voices. The introduction of increased sanctions for those organising or participating in protests, including excessive fines, has also had a debilitating effect on Azerbaijani citizens' right to express critical or oppositional viewpoints.
ARTICLE 19 calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to release those arrested or imprisoned for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly and to repeal recent amendments to the Law on Freedom of Assembly to bring it in line with international human rights standards.
After its first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in May 2009, the Azerbaijani government committed to:
- strengthen its efforts to guarantee freedom of assembly and association;
- uphold the right to peaceful assembly and ensure that it is effectively implemented;
- put in place further measures to ensure respect for freedom of expression and the media.
Despite this, Azerbaijan has continued to crack down on activists, social media users and Internet bloggers. Since the start of 2013, civil society in Azerbaijan has been increasingly active ahead of the presidential elections due to take place in October this year.
In January 2013, the Azerbaijan government responded harshly to protests in Baku and in the town of Ismailli. The protests were triggered by despondency over corruption and reports of physical abuse in the military. Protesters were brutally dispersed, many were detained by police, and more than 20 people were heavily fined using amendments to the law on protests introduced in November 2012. A number of people were sentenced to several days in administrative detention including the well-known blogger, Emin Milli. An opposition leader and potential presidential candidate, Ilgar Mammadov, was also arrested on 4 February 2012 after travelling to Ismailli, charged with 'organising mass disorder' and 'violently resisting police'. He has remained in pre-trial detention ever since and had his appeal for bail denied on 8 April.
The harsh response to unsanctioned protests comes following the changes made to the Law on Freedom of Assembly in November 2012. These amendments came into effect on 1 January 2013 and have increased fines from between 7 and 12 EUR to between 480 and 1,050 EUR for participants and between 1,400 and 2,900 EUR for organisers. The amendments to the Criminal Code also increase the maximum fine for participating in unsanctioned public gatherings from 955 EUR to 7600 EUR.
Since the beginning of March 2013, seven activists from one of the largest political youth movements in Azerbaijan, N!DA, have been arrested in Baku on politically motivated charges:
- On 7 March, Bakhtiyar Guliyev, Shahin Novruzlu, and Mahamad Azizovwere were arrested in Baku and charged with drug possession and also, in the case of Guliyev and Novruzlu, preparation of explosives prior to a rally scheduled for 10 March. All three were reportedly forced to “confess” their crimes in front of TV cameras under pressure and possibly physical torture according to N!DA.
- On 14 March, Rashad Hasanov, a board member of N!DA was also arrested and charged with drug possession and preparation of explosives, as part of an organised group.
- On 30 March, Rashadat Akhundov and Uzeyir Mammadli, also N!DA board members, were arrested and sentenced to pre-trial detention for possession of drugs and weapons.
- On 1 April, Zaur Gurbanli a blogger and N!DA activist was sentenced to pre-trial detention after being charged with obtaining, preparing, transporting illegal firearms as part of an organised group. His appeal to be released from pre-trial detention was rejected on 8 April, without hearing evidence from the defence or allowing the defendant to address the court.
All seven were sentenced to three months pre-trial detention and remain in pre-trial detention in Baku. While they have access to lawyers, their families are reported to have not had any access to the activists since their arrests.
- In addition, other activists and bloggers have also been targeted: On 26 March, Dasqin Malikov, a youth activist with the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AXCP), was arrested for drug possession following a series of critical posts on Facebook and other social media. He was known to participate regularly in public protests. He remains in pre-trial detention.
- On 9 April, blogger and book vendor Etibar Salmanli was arrested and taken to the Grave Crimes Investigations Directorate of the Prosecutor-General’s office in Baku. He was able to inform friends by phone while being taken to the directorate but soon after contact was lost. He was reportedly detained in connection with National Democratic Institute and N!DA’s ‘criminal activities’. Although Salmanli was previously a member of N!DA, the group has stated that he had resigned some time ago.
- On the same day Ilkin Rustemzade, a member of the ‘Free Youth’ organisation and organiser of ‘end soldier deaths’ protesters through Facebook, was summoned to appear at the Grave Crimes Investigations Directorate on 10 April as a witness in the ongoing N!DA case.
These arrests and detentions follow calls for the regulation of social media and the Internet, one of the few spheres where freedom of expression is still possible in Azerbaijan. For example, in March 2013, Siyavush Novruzov, an MP with the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, said that regulations should be imposed on social media to protect citizens' 'honour and dignity'. Most activists currently in detention use social media and the Internet in order to organise and publicise their activism.
The Azerbaijani government also uses politically motivated charges as a tactic to punish and silence journalists critical of both local and national authorities. Journalists are often held for long periods in pre-trial detention on trumped up charges and later convicted to lengthty prison sentences for fabricated crimes such as extortion, 'organising mass disorder' or drug related offences.
On 12 March, editor-in-chief of Xural newspaper Avaz Zeynelli was sentenced to nine years imprisonment for extortion, tax evasion and failure to implement the decision of a court. The charges against Zeynalli were based on claims made by former Member of Parliament Gular Ahmadova, who said that he attempted to blackmail her. No evidence was provided in court to substantiate her claims and Ahmadova did not attend the trial.
On 15 March, the executive director of Khayal TV Vugar Gonagov and the editor in chief, of Khayal TV Zaur Guliyev were given probationary sentences for 'organising mass disorder' with Guliyev being additionally charged with 'abuse of office'. They were accused of provoking the mass riots that broke out two weeks earlier on March 1, after posting online a video of regional governor Rauf Habibov making derogatory remarks about local citizens. Thousands of protesters, including opposition and youth activists, demonstrated in Guba on March 1, 2012 demanding Khabibov's resignation, as a result of his comments.
On 5 April, xeber44.com web-site editor Araz Guliyev was sentenced to eight years imprisonment on a range of charges including illegal possession of firearms, organising and participating in a public order disturbance, inciting national and religious hatred, resisting the authorities and insulting the republic's flag and insignia.
Five other journalists remain in prison on politically motivated charges:
- Freelance independent journalist and founder of the newspapers 24 Hours & Nota Bene Faramaz Novruzoglu
- xeber44.com Editor-in-chief Fuad Huseynov
- Tolishy Sado newspaper chief editor Hilal Mammadov
- Yeni Musavat newspaper journalist Tofig Yagublu
- azadxeber.org website editor Nijat Aliyev
In the light of these developments, and ahead of its second UPR on 30 April 2013, ARTICLE 19 calls on the Republic of Azerbaijan to:
- Repeal the amendments made to the Law on Freedom of Assembly, adopted in November 2012, and the associated amendments to the Administrative and Criminal Codes.
- Immediately and unconditionally release all those detained or imprisoned in connection with the exercise of their right to freedom of expression. On the date of publication this includes: Ilgar Mammadov, Bakhtiyar Guliyev, Shahin Novruzlu, Mahamad Azizov, Rashadat Akhundov, Uzeyir Mammadli, Zaur Gurbanli, Dasqin Malikov, Avaz Zeynalli, Faramaz Novruzoglu, Fuad Huseynov, Hilal Mammadov, Tofig Yagublu, Nijat Aliyev and Araz Guliyev.
- Unconditionally drop charges against all those criminally charged in connection with the exercise of their right to freedom of expression. Charges still stand against Mehman Huseynov (hooliganism, 12 June 2012), Otgay Guliyev (minor hooliganism, 8 April 2012), Vugar Gonagov (‘organising mass disorder’, March 2012) and Zaur Guliyev (‘organising mass disorder’, ‘abuse of office’, March 2012).
- Investigate all reports of ill treatment and/or torture of people in custody and bring those responsible to justice.
- Respect the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners for those held in pretrial detention.
ARTICLE 19, the coordinating organisation for the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan (IPGA), submitted a joint submission to the UN UPR on Azerbaijan in October 2012. The full text, including a list of recommendations, can be read online.