Human Rights in Azerbaijan
(Updated 26 November 2013)
Azerbaijan is an authoritarian country, with civil and political rights severely restricted and violated. The political power is completely concentrated in the hands of the president Ilham Aliyev and ruling party directly affiliated with him. The human rights record, poor to begin with, has been on a slide in the last two years and became especially apparent with Azerbaijan in international spotlight for hosting 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. Most notable are violations of freedom of expression, assembly, and association.
The number of arrests and imprisonments of activists, who spoke out about human rights violations and/or scrutinized the government, increased drastically. The trumped-up charges often included narcotics trafficking, weapon possession and hooliganism. The authorities criminally persecute not only individual activists but also introduce more restrictive laws. The crackdown was the backdrop for the October 2013 presidential elections, re-electing the incumbent for the third term in a landslide victory and criticized by OSCE for falling short of international standards. Other serious human rights problems included unfair justice, frequent cases of arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture, ill-treatment in prisons, obstruction of civil society organizations work, discrimination against sexual and national minorities and persons with disabilities.
Spending considerable effort and financial resources on international lobby groups, the Azerbaijani government continues to lobby hard to persuade the international community that it is an emerging young democracy and the lack of a free expression or its political prisoners are not worthy of special attention – or can be justified in the context of the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and country’s vulnerable geographic location between Russia and Iran.
Human rights defenders
Human rights defenders in Azerbaijan are facing difficulties and security risks when investigating and exposing human rights violations committed or condoned by the state, engaging in confidence building activities, or challenging discriminatory laws, traditions and stereotypes. Therefore, they and independent journalists face a high risk of criminal persecution and violence in their daily work. In spring 2012, authorities opened criminal cases against 2 human rights defenders, Ilham Amirslanov and Taleh Khasmammadov, who were involved in work of civil society organization Kur Civil Union, in retaliation for their work in protecting flood victims in Southern Azerbaijan. The former was charged with accusation in with illegal possession of weapons. Taleh Khasmammadov, who investigated allegations of abuse and corruption by law enforcement officials, was convicted on charges of hooliganism and physical assault of public officials. Civil rights organizations were widely obstructed from their work. For example, Azerbaijan Human Rights House remained closed following the Ministry of Justice suspending its registration in 2011.
There is also the risk of societal misconception of human rights defenders work, as a result, they face a lack of understanding or hostility from the general public.
In the area of Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict Nagorno-Karbakh Republic, the widespread feeling of insecurity places limits on the civil society work as well as on human rights of the local population, even if actual violent attacks are rare. The atmosphere of mistrust and fear obstructs human rights work and could create conditions for triggers of new violent escalations. The risk of a possible armed confrontation also puts human rights defenders in one of the highest risk categories due to the nature of their work.
The right to life and physical integrity
The death penalty was abolished in Azerbaijan in 1998. The last execution took place in 1992. Torture and ill-treatment continue with impunity in government-sponsored facilities. Despite the adoption of legislation providing for ethical treatment of detainees, inhumane treatment in prison intensified in 2012 in the country hosting 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. Azerbaijan has undertaken reform measures to strengthen the penal system. Some new prisons have been built and a general upgrading of the infrastructure has been completed. A committee for review of prison conditions has been established, and the Azerbaijani State Human Rights Ombudsman has conducted visits to prisons and detention centers. However, poor nutrition, inadequate health care, infectious diseases and suicides are still common in Azerbaijani prisons.
Local human rights organizations reported a high number of abuses and deaths in military.
The right to liberty and security of person
Arbitrary detentions are widespread and have increased recently. Many critics of the country’s deteriorating human rights situation were put behind bars on fabricated charges – sometimes the accusations changed while the detainee was awaiting trial. Members of opposition parties and youth workers, as well as journalists have been affected the most. Hilal Mamedov, the editor of Tolishi Sado (Talysh Voice), whose charges were changed on-the-go from drug possession to bribery in 2012, is one of the famous faces of freedom of expression ban. His predecessor, the former editor-in-chief of the newspaper, died in prison in 2008 due to maltreatment and lack of access to basic health care and hygiene. The cases of politically motivated disappearances were not widely reported.
List of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, released by the Baku-based Human Rights Club on 1 October 2013, outlines cases of 142 journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, civic, political and religious activists who were currently in detention or imprisoned for politically motivated reasons. Among them are many arrested in connection with exercising their rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association.
The right to a fair trial and an effective remedy
The rule of law in Azerbaijan is considered inadequate and is not independent of executive influences. The judiciary system also suffers from corruption, inefficiencies and understaffing. Equality before the law is inadequate. A 2012 OSCE review of the judicial system stressed the occurrence of torture and threats connected to legal proceedings. The Azerbaijani authorities generally acknowledge problems with the justice system and have taken a number of steps in recent years to reform it. A legal academy has been established. Recruitment and training of new judges are ongoing, and the number of graduated judges has increased. Judiciary infrastructure, court rooms and prisons are subject to renewal. In spite of all these recent improvements – more judges, better selected and qualified, more aware of international human rights standards – the actual independence of the judiciary is still far from being secured. Dubiously motivated criminal prosecutions and disproportionate sentences by politically influenced judges remain a concern.
The right to respect for private and family life
Government surveillance is a major concern in the country, and, in light of the Arab Spring and social media revolutions in the Middle East, the regime has especially tightened its grip on monitoring social media and new technology. Blanket surveillance of Azerbaijan’s mobile-phone networks is carried out with help from the telecommunications company TeliaSonera, a third of which is owned by the Swedish state. Sources from within the company described how in Azerbaijan, TeliaSonera’s subsidiary, Azercell, installed devices known internally as “black boxes,” which allow real-time blanket monitoring of all mobile traffic without court orders or warrants. Azercell even hosts government security personnel on company premises. Dissidents are especially subjected to surveillance. In 2011, for example, a journalist was secretly filmed in her apartment while having sex with her boyfriend, and the video was put online after she published controversial articles about the president’s family.
The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion
Azerbaijan is a secular state with a great majority of Muslim population. In 2010, all religious communities were forced to re-register with the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations by January 1, 2010, or face potential liquidation. The state denied registration to Baku’s Baptist Church, its Catholic Parish, and its Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Religious groups are still harassed in Azerbaijan, especially Jehovah´s witnesses, for distributing religious literature without state permission. In December 2011, the president signed legislative amendments criminalizing the illegal production, distribution, and import of religious literature not approved by state. A new criminal code article punishes the creation of a group that undermines social order under the pretext of carrying out religious work. In December 2010 the government banned women from wearing head scarves in schools and universities, leading thousands to drop out.
The right to the freedom of expression
Freedom of expression in Azerbaijan is severely restricted and the country’s record has undergone a marked deterioration in the run-up to 9 October 2013 presidential elections. Defamation remains a criminal offense punishable by high fines and imprisonment – the respective amendments to the law imposing even harsher punishment and extending criminal defamation provisions to the Internet content were adopted by parliament in May 2013. Journalists are threatened and assaulted with impunity, many of them are being jailed on fabricated charges. According to local group Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), there are currently 8 journalists who are in detention or convicted. Internet remained almost the only channel of oppositional voices. At the same time the government is becoming increasingly aware of the rising Internet activism and has been trying to restrict it. For example, the authorities have repeatedly blocked some websites that feature opposition views and intimidated the online community through harsh treatment of critical bloggers as well as carried out extensive surveillance of social media. The Ministry of Justice has repeatedly refused registration to the Media Monitoring Institute, which has attempted to register 6 times since 2009. Foreign-language FM media broadcasting as well as foreign-language TV-shows and films are outlawed. The latter was enacted in May 2012. The situation worsened after the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. A July 2012 speech by President Aliyev – branding civil activists as “anti-nationalist forces” and “traitors to the nation” for exposing human rights problems in the country – marked a new era for oppression of free thinkers and civil activists.
The right to freedom of assembly and association
People´s fundamental right to freedom of peaceful assembly is extensively violated. In November 2012 the Azerbaijani government introduced the amendments to the law to harshen the punishment on peaceful protestors. According to the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan, anyone involved in a “legally banned demonstration” can be imprisoned. The fines for organizing unsanctioned rallies were increased dramatically. Officials did not authorize any demonstrations in central Baku, and the police quickly and often violently dispersed unauthorized protests. Police detained more than 50 activists in March 2012 after pro-democracy protests, inspired by the Arab Spring. The courts tried dozens in closed-door, late-night trials, sentencing activists for up to 10 days. In an unauthorized rally on April 2012, police physically obstructed protesters from gathering and detained over 200 people—including public figures, journalists, and opposition activists—14 of whom were sentenced in unfair trials to up to three years imprisonment. The situation worsened after Eurovision with Azerbaijan cracking down protests in front of the international community.
Legal amendments enacted in 2009 require non-governmental organizations to register their grants with authorities and foreign NGOs to reach agreements with the government before opening offices in the country. NGOs that were releasing reports that revealed human rights abuses have been continuously pressured and harassed by authorities.
The right to protection against hate speech and war propaganda
The most common form of hate speech that of LGBT issues. Rough political statements are common. Politicians and public figures in Azerbaijan often make degrading and discriminatory statements about homosexuality. There are also reports of alleged homosexual orientation used to discredit political opponents and journalists.
The right to political rights
The political power is largely concentrated in the hands of president. The interference of authorities into electoral process was pervasive. A large number of registered parties don’t offer political pluralism in practice as many act as supporting parties to the incumbent government. Actual oppositional parties are not represented in the parliament. Prominent political families exercise strong power, and the system is characterized by corruption and bias.
The 9 October 2013 presidential elections led to the appointment of Ilham Aliyev, the son of the previous president Heydar Aliyev, for a third term. OSCE/ODIHR observers declared the elections, which earned Aliyev 86 per cent of the votes, “seriously flawed”. Last parliamentary elections in 2010 did not meet international standards of fair and democratic elections either. Most oppositional parties boycotted the election.
Women essentially have the same rights of participation in elections as men. However, in practice, only 14 of the Parliament’s 125 sitting members are women and there are no female ministers.
While there were 50 registered political parties in the country, the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party almost exclusively dominated the political landscape. On April 2012 the parliament passed amendments to the law on political parties that undermines political pluralism by establishing state funding for political parties, clarifying restrictions on political party financing and setting new rules for disclosure of private contributions.
The right to protection against discrimination
Among groups most frequently exposed to discrimination are internally displaced people, women, persons with disabilities, national and sexual minorities. Internally displaces people are at risk of being socially excluded and are characterized by higher poverty rates. They are affected by higher unemployment, in particular displaced women experience higher unemployment rates. In Azerbaijan, IDPs amount to more than 6 per cent of the total population. IDPs are frequently settled in remote rural areas, which also limit their labour market opportunities and they are often dependent on governmental assistance. National minorities, first of all, people of Armenian decent amounting to 20-30 thousands, were discriminated in employment, housing and provision of social services. Azerbaijan decriminalized homosexuality in 2001 with the entry into the Council of Europe. However, the country has not signed Protocol 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which specifically refers to discrimination based on sexual orientation, nor has the country accepted the 2007 UN declaration on sexual orientation and gender identity. Azerbaijan has so far failed to enact laws that specifically ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and provide effective protection to LGBT people. Homophobia and transphobia remain life-threatening. Police’s brutality against the LGBT community is common, but it often is not reported because of fear of harassment and social stigma. This is particularly pronounced in rural areas, especially in the southern parts of the country on the border with Iran. A local organization, Gender and Development, specializes in these issues and has worked to make LGBT issues visible in the public debate since 2007. On a positive note, in May 2011, the Parliament adopted the Draft Law on Domestic Violence, thus criminalizing domestic abuse and providing for the creation of aid centres for victims of violence.
Civil Rights Defenders in Azerbaijan
Civil Rights Defenders has become involved in raising awareness about the atrocious human rights record and the situation of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan when the country hosted Eurovision Song Contest in May 2012. In 20 years of Azerbaijan’s independence no other event captured that level of international media attention. We teamed up with the Swedish contestant Loreen and some of our brave colleagues in Azerbaijan who ran Sing For Democracy campaign – to bring attention of the international community to the human rights abuses in the country. The press conference with Loreen on the eve of the contest and her subsequent engagement in the human rights cause in Azerbaijan after she won Eurovision played a major role in reaching to thousands of people, politicians and decision makers in Sweden and the rest of Europe. In May 2013, one year after Eurovision in Baku, together with Vugar Gojayev we published a report No sweet songs for human rights defenders” showing that repression of civil society had reached new lows.
Taggar: Azerbajdzjan, Landanalyser, och Mänskliga rättigheter.