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Fear of repression looms as another human rights defender is detained in Azerbaijan

Rasul Jafarov/Facebook

The Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) condemns in the strongest possible terms today's [2 August 2014] arrest and fabricated charges of “illegal entrepreneurship”, “power abuse” and “tax evasion” brought against human rights defender Rasul Jafarov. IRFS calls on the government of Azerbaijan to immediately release Rasul and drop all charges against him, and end the ongoing state harassment of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan.

The arbitrary arrest and detention of prominent human rights defenders – Leyla Yunus on Thursday [31 July] and Rasul Jafarov today [2 August] – is an attempt to silence criticism and divert the spotlight from ongoing abuses, the organization said.

A fierce critic of Azerbaijan's human rights record and justice system, Rasul has been working on a detailed list of political prisoners – a subject which is increasingly a taboo for the Azerbaijani government. Two groundbreaking campaigns that he launched – Sing for Democracy in relation to the Eurovision Song Contest, held in Baku in 2012, and the Art for Democracy campaign – gained nationwide attention and support, pressuring the government to improve the country's human rights record.

In recent days, Rasul has been interrogated at the Prosecutor General's office in relation to a high profile criminal case targeting a number of acclaimed human rights organizations including the National Endowment for Democracy, International Media Support, Black Sea Trust, IREX and Oxfam.

Today, following interrogation at the Prosecutor General's office, Rasul was charged with three articles of the Penal Code Article 192 (tax evasion), Article 213 (illegal entrepreneurship) and Article 303 (power abuse) and sentenced to a three month pre-trial detention, on decision of the Nasimi district court in Baku.

The charges – the same as those that lead to conviction of another prominent human rights defender, Anar Mammadli in May – stem from the fact that the government has denied Rasul's NGO official registration, despite the organization's numerous attempts to register.

Rasul Jafarov has been struggling to register his NGO, Human Rights Club (HRC), with the Ministry of Justice since its establishment on 10 December 2010. HRC, with Rasul as its Chairman, was established by several Azerbaijani human rights defenders, dedicated to protecting human rights and freedoms in Azerbaijan. Since then, the Ministry of Justice returned the HRC application for registration three times, each time claiming new errors. All HRC complaints to courts have been dismissed.

The HRC remained unregistered until it was forced to cease its activities this year due to overly repressive new amendments to the NGO law, imposing huge fines and criminal liability on NGOs and their founders. The refusal to register the HRC is highly believed to be in retaliation for Rasul's active work in exposing human rights abuses in Azerbaijan.

Rasul's arrest calls into question the Azerbaijani government's stated commitment to improving respect for human rights as part of the Azerbaijan- Council of Europe Action Plan for upcoming years, and to launching a dialogue with independent civil society, as promised by Azerbaijan's President Aliyev on June 23 in Strasbourg.

“Azerbaijani authorities systematically clamp down on those who seek to reach out to the international community,” said Emin Huseynov, CEO and Chairman of IRFS. “Instead of promised dialogue with civil society, the latest arrests show the Azerbaijani government is stepping up its aggressive stance towards those seeking justice and answers”.

Recently, there has been a rapid escalation in the cold war rhetoric of official statements in Azerbaijan which increasingly refer to the presence of "national traitors" and "fifth columnists". The statements have been accompanied by a set of concrete measures that further restrict the space for Azerbaijani civil society. This has included a state-controlled media smear campaign, raids of NGOs, the confiscation of equipment, the arrest of NGO bank accounts which led to the de facto shutdown of several NGOs, the intimidation and legal pursuit of NGO workers inside and outside the country, and so on. Right now, at least ten human rights organizations are undergoing raided checks, in which officials from the prosecutor's office, tax inspectorate and ministry of justice comb through registration and financial documents.

When Azerbaijan assumed its chairmanship of the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers in May, some activists hoped that one would see a system that was more tolerant of dissent and discussion. The government, however, is now widely seen as tightening the screws on the work of NGO and activists, including the sentencing of Anar Mammadov, another well-known human rights defender, to five years in prison in May as well as the arrest and heavy charges brought against female human rights defender Leyla Yunus earlier this week.

“The international community should demand the immediate release of Rasul and his collegues languishing behind bars on bogus charges of 'hooliganism', 'power abuse' and other fantastic 'crimes'. The arrest of these human rights defenders shows just how important it is for the international community to stand up for human rights in Azerbaijan”, Huseynov said.

IRFS protests the three-month pre-trial detention handed to Rasul Jafarov and criminal charges brought against him, as violating international standards guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression and freedom of association. IRFS is calling for his immediate release and for the charges against him to be dropped.

What other IFEX members are saying
  • Call for the immediate and unconditional release of Leyla Yunus, Arif Yunus and Rasul Jafarov

    60 NGOs from 13 Human Rights Houses call upon the Azerbaijani authorities, in their joint letter to President Ilham Aliyev, to immediately and unconditionally release Leyla Yunus, Arif Yunus and Rasul Jafarov, and lift all charges held against them. The NGOs also repeat their previous call to release Anar Mammadli and Bashir Suleymanli, and join calls for the release of Hasan Huseynli.

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