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Rights crackdown in Azerbaijan coincides with Council of Europe chairmanship

Elmar Mammadyarov, Azerbaijani Chairman of the Committee of Ministers at The Council of Europe is photographed in Baghdad, Iraq, 10 February 2014.
Elmar Mammadyarov, Azerbaijani Chairman of the Committee of Ministers at The Council of Europe is photographed in Baghdad, Iraq, 10 February 2014.

REUTERS/Ahmed Saad

The Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) condemns in the strongest possible terms the Azerbaijani government's unprecedented attacks on independent human rights activists and organizations. The Council of Europe must not condone this frantic crackdown. Furthermore, Azerbaijan's chairmanship over this body should be challenged until the regime has put its house in order and provided proper mechanisms for challenging and remedying abuse.

Azerbaijan's chairmanship over the Council's of Europe top decision making body, its Committee of Ministers, coincided with an unprecedented rights crackdown. In recent days, Azerbaijan's regime has arrested and detained several civil society leaders and forced a number of human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to suspend their operations.

This latest crackdown comes in the wake of the criminal case launched by Azerbaijan's Prosecutor's Office against pro-democracy NGOs, which resulted in the closure of leading human rights organizations, including the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, the Legal Education Society and the Institute for Peace and Democracy; the de-facto closure of dozens of human rights NGOs following the arrest of their bank accounts; the arrest of prominent human rights defenders Leila Yunus, Rasul Jafarov and Intigam Aliyev; the travel ban imposed on IRFS's Chairman Emin Huseynov, and the issuance of summons against several other NGO members.

In addition, several NGOs including freedom of expression watchdog Media Rights Institute have closed due to fear of a government clampdown.

During the raids, the Prosecutor's Office confined staff to their offices and forbade them from making phone calls. Dozens of Azerbaijani and international NGOs were targeted as part of a widespread investigation into foreign funding of Azerbaijani civic society groups.

Security forces, both uniformed and plain-clothed, forced their way into the offices, where employees were informed that they were under investigation by the public prosecutor. NGO assets including laptops, production equipment, and other documents were seized during the raids.

The raids follow a far-reaching investigation into the foreign funding of human rights and civic advocacy groups launched in May.

“Arresting human rights defenders and conducting raids on independent organizations is what is damaging not only Azerbaijan's, but also the Council of Europe's reputation,” said Gunay Ismayilova, the acting chair of IRFS. “This orchestrated move by Azerbaijan's authorities, apparently keen to play up to anti-West and nationalist feelings in the country, must be seen as highly provocative in Strasbourg”, Ismayilova said.

It is unacceptable that Azerbaijani authorities enjoy chairmanship over the Council of Europe as long as they continue to routinely usurp the transition to a genuine democracy and to trample upon inalienable rights, including freedom of expression, assembly and association of all Azerbaijanis, the organization said.

Azerbaijan's chairmanship is in contradiction with the Council of Europe's principles and values, according its foundation documents, that explicitly note the protection and promotion of human rights and democracy as core values of organization.

By putting Azerbaijan, with it current repressive policies, at the helm of Council of Europe, member states are sending the message that they are not serious about their stated commitment to democracy and human rights. The Council of Europe should be embarrassed by this fact. With its abysmal human rights record, Azerbaijan is hardly the best ambassador for the Council of Europe on the international stage.

IRFS calls on the Council of Europe as such, as well as individual member states, not to turn a blind eye to the human rights crisis in Azerbaijan and denounce the serious and persistent breaches of fundamental human rights and freedoms in this country. If member states are allowed to get away with blatant violations and fail to comply with the Council of Europe rules and treaties the organization, as such, loses both respect and influence.

In parallel, IRFS calls upon the Azerbaijani authorities to return all confiscated NGO property, and to put an end to trumped-up investigations against these NGOs and their leaders. IRFS calls on Azerbaijan's government to immediately release human rights defenders Intigam Aliyev, Leyla Yunus, Arif Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, Bashir Suleymanli and Anar Mammadli and lift the travel ban imposed on Emin Huseynov.

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