Geneva, 29 April 2013: The member states of the United Nations should hold Azerbaijan to account during its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on 30 April 2013 for its failure to protect basic human rights. The International Partnership Group on Azerbaijan, coordinated by ARTICLE 19, and local organisations urge the UN to take Azerbaijan to task for failing to implement the commitments it made after its first review in 2009.
In its national report to the UPR, Azerbaijan stated that the right to freedom of association and assembly is guaranteed in its Constitution. It also stated that freedom of assembly is further guaranteed through international treaties to which Azerbaijan is party. However, this assertion is at odds with the experiences of the many Azerbaijanis who voice critical or opposing views in the traditional media, online or in protests.
After its first UPR in 2009, the Azerbaijani government committed to implementing several recommendations to:
• put in place further measures to ensure respect for freedom of expression and the media;
• uphold the right to peaceful assembly and ensure that it is effectively implemented;
• strengthen its efforts to guarantee freedom of assembly and association.
Yet journalists, writers, bloggers and human rights defenders and protesters who have expressed critical or opposing opinions have continued to be arrested, detained and/or imprisoned. They are regularly harassed and subject to attacks while carrying out their work.
In recent months, the Azerbaijani government has also introduced several new pieces of legislation that violate international standards, notably amendments to the Law on Assembly and the Law on Non-Governmental Organisations. These have had a negative impact on Azerbaijan’s civil society and its ability to speak out against human rights abuses.
Below we highlight how the image that Azerbaijan presents in its UPR report fails to reflect the reality for ordinary people in Azerbaijan. We call on the UN member states to use the UPR process as an opportunity to hold Azerbaijan to account for human rights violations. We also urge for them to make strong recommendations in line with the commitments that Azerbaijan has already made under international standards.
Failing to protect and promote freedom of expression
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) - Article 19, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) - Article 19
Azerbaijan’s national UPR report states:
• Para 52. “Freedom of speech has been guaranteed by the articles 47 and 50 of the Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan and by the other respective laws.”
• Para 54. “... all kind of violations of law, including violations against journalists and human rights defenders are widely investigated, relevant measures are taken and those committing such violations are necessarily brought to justice and accordingly punished.”
The situation for freedom of expression has not improved in Azerbaijan since 2009. Instead there has been a steady deterioration, demonstrating the Azerbaijani authorities’ alarming disregard for the principles enshrined in its Constitution and relevant international standards.
At its first UPR in 2009, Azerbaijan committed to "effectively investigate and prosecute crimes and violations against journalists and human rights defenders” and to punish those responsible. Despite this commitment, physical attacks and threats and the harassment, blackmail, intimidation and imprisonment of journalists, writers, bloggers, human rights defenders and activists have become commonplace.
According to the Baku-based Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety (IRFS), there has been no justice in any of the 87 cases of violent attacks on journalists since 2009. The impunity displayed in these cases, along with the unsolved cases of two murdered journalists, Elmar Huseynov (2005) and Rafiq Tagi (2011), has had a chilling effect on freedom of expression.
Arrests of journalists, writers, bloggers and human rights defenders followed by imprisonment have continued on an almost cyclical basis over the past few years. Many of these individuals have been subjected to long pre-trial detention periods before being convicted with disproportionately heavy prison terms on spurious and unsubstantiated charges.
At the time of writing seven journalists remain behind bars. Profiles of all seven can be found on the IPGA’s website – www.azerbaijanfreeXpression.org.
“These arrests send a message to other journalists and opposition politicians to either cease exercising their right to freedom of expression altogether, to self-censor, or risk arrest”, states IRFS CEO Emin Huseynov. “Ahead of presidential election in October 2013 the government is seriously redoubling its efforts to stamp out freedom of expression,” Huseynov added.
In addition to violence and imprisonment, journalists critical of the authorities have been subjected to serious violations of their right to private life. This has been done either to obstruct their journalistic activities or to pressurise them into ceasing their work altogether. Examples include the case of outspoken critical journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who works for the Azerbaijani service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In March 2012, a sex video of her filmed by hidden camera was posted on the Internet after she refused to be silenced by a blackmail attempt. No one has been brought to justice for these violations.
“This is what we have to deal with in this country - people who have no morality, no values, have impunity to insult and attack those who dare to criticize,” states Khadija Ismayilova. “Impunity is the key answer to the question why Azerbaijani regime keeps (carrying out such actions). The world should start demanding punishment for attacks against journalists, for crimes against dignity and freedom of speech."
Failure to protect and promote the Right to Peaceful Assembly
(UDHR - Article 20, ICCPR - Article 21)
Azerbaijan’s national UPR report states:
• Para 58. Freedom of assembly of everyone in the Republic of Azerbaijan is guaranteed according to the Constitution and International Treaties which the Republic of Azerbaijan is party to. According to the Law freedom of assembly can only be restricted when prescribed by law and necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health and morals, rights and freedoms of others.
• Para 59. The limitations of implementation of freedom of assembly are considered within the context of the constitutional norms which sets fundamental human rights and freedoms. According to the 5th article of the Law on Freedom of Assembly the route of the street rally, time and venue of the meeting should be coordinated with the local executive body by written notification for execution of necessary measures.
• Para 60. Prosecutor General's Office of the Republic of Azerbaijan in all situations investigates the proportionality of conducted force by the organs of internal affairs in order to restore public order.
Since Azerbaijan’s first UPR in 2009, there have been a number of peaceful protests, actions or demonstrations that have resulted in arrests and imprisonment. The government has made clear moves to clamp down on such types of public actions, including by using prior authorisation procedures for protests in the centre of the capital, Baku, which are regularly denied, resulting in a de facto ban.
In November 2012, the Law on Freedom of Assembly was amended, increasing for example the maximum fine for participating in unsanctioned public gatherings from 955 EUR to 7600 EUR.
In January 2013, the same month the above amendments came into effect there was a wave of public protests. The Azerbaijan government responded harshly to protests in Baku and Ismailli. 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, had been arrested on 4 February 2013 after travelling to Ismailli, charged with ‘organising mass disorder’ and ‘violently resisting police’. He has remained in pre-trial detention ever since and his appeal for bail was denied on 8 April.
“Public dissent is growing and the government is responding harshly. (President) Aliyev leads the country to chaos since human dignity and basic freedoms are not respected in the country and people have no legal channels to communicate legally and peacefully their frustration with political, economic and social conditions in the country,” stated Emin Milli “We had two riots within a year in two different regions of Azerbaijan and different social groups which usually never protest have protested for the first time openly against the government responding to every repression even with more resistance.”
In March and April 2013, seven activists from N!DA, one of the largest political youth movements in Azerbaijan, were arrested in Baku on spurious and seemingly politically motivated charges of drug and gun possession. The N!DA movement describes itself as an organisation that campaigns for a free civil society and democratic, social and economic reforms. Three N!DA members were arrested ahead of a demonstration announced by N!DA for 10 March to protest against the deaths and alleged abuse of military conscripts. A further four were arrested at a later point. All seven currently remain in pre-trial detention, along with another a youth activist, Dasqin Malikov, from the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AXCP). He was arrested on 26 March, also on drug possession charges. Like the others, Malikov was known to be active on social media sites.
“The recent attack by the authorities on N!DA and other pro-democracy organizations is an attempt to curb rising political activity of the people and the youth in particular in Azerbaijan. These repressions based on totally fabricated allegations does not scare the activists, instead it increases the discontent with the regime and helps to mobilize unhappy people,” stated N!DA board member Turgut Gambar.
Failure to protect the right to freedom of association
(UDHR Article 20, ICCPR Article 22)
Azerbaijan’s national UPR report makes no reference to the protection of the right to freedom of association. This is despite its acceptance of a recommendation to strengthen efforts to guarantee freedom of assembly and association as part of its first UPR in 2009.
On 11 March 2013, Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, signed into law amendments to the Law on Non-Governmental Organisations, which impose greater restrictions on the funding of NGOs in Azerbaijan. These limit the ability of NGOs to function and also leave them susceptible to closure at short notice, negatively impacting on the rights to freedom of association and assembly and freedom of expression. The law requires local groups to inform authorities about any funding or donations above 200 AZN (about USD250), and demands that they sign a formal contract with donors. Failure to meet these requirements leads to exorbitant fines and the confiscation of property.
This development adds to an already difficult environment for local and international NGOs, as the registration procedure for them is opaque and arbitrary. March 2013 marked the third anniversary of the closure of the Azerbaijan Human Rights House, one of the members of the international Human Rights House Network, which was forced to suspend its activities until an agreement with the Azerbaijani authorities was approved. Until its closure on 10 March 2010, its office served as an independent meeting place for human rights organisations.
“The Azerbaijani authorities appear to be engaging in a concerted effort to silence many critical journalists, independent lawyers, and local and international human rights groups,” stated Vugar Gojayev, an Azerbaijani human rights defender and former head of the Azerbaijan Human Rights House. “Azerbaijan’s international partners should intensify pressure on the authorities to ensure that they comply with their international human rights obligations, and stop an already alarming situation from getting worse.”
Human Rights Club, one of the organizations behind Sing for Democracy, and its successor ART for Democracy, has had its applications to register officially as an NGO denied for more than two years. Azerbaijani authorities rejected its most recent attempt in February 2013. The ART for Democracy campaign, launched in December 2012, has been harshly criticised in articles published by ruling party newspapers, labelling it as “anti-national” and intending to “sabotage” Azerbaijan
“This is a very important review of Azerbaijan’s human rights commitments as the situation of human rights has been deteriorating over the last few years. The inability for NGOs, like HRC to be registered shows there is no willingness of the government to have strong civil society in Azerbaijan which is direct violation of obligations were taken before the international organizations,” stated Rasul Jafarov, Chairman of Human Rights Club and Coordinator of ART for Democracy, “We believe that the UPR can be yet another tool to be used to improve the human rights situation in Azerbaijan. At the same time it is a test for the international community to stand up for universal values and to not close its eyes to human rights violations in Azerbaijan”.
Recommendations: We urge the member states of the United Nations to actively participate in Azerbaijan’s UPR and help develop strong recommendations, calling upon Azerbaijan to:
• Conduct effective, impartial and speedy investigations into all cases of violence against journalists, bringing the perpetrators and organisers to justice.
• Take seriously all reports of threats against journalists and provide them with adequate protection to ensure their safety.
• Redouble efforts to investigate the murders of Elmar Huseynov and Rafig Tagi in line with international standards and bring the perpetrators and organisers of the attacks to justice.
• Seriously, effectively, transparently and impartially investigate all violations of journalists’ right to privacy and prosecute those responsible bringing the perpetrators and organizers to justice.
• Cease the arrest and imprisonment of persons for politically motivated reasons.
• Immediately and unconditionally release all those detained or imprisoned in connection with the exercise of their right to freedom of expression.
• Repeal the amendments made to the Law on Freedom of Assembly, adopted in November 2012, and the associated amendments, specifically to Criminal Code.
• Ensure that procedures for assemblies only include notification requirements, compatible with international standards on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.
• Repeal amendments introduced to the Law on Non-Governmental Organisations in March 2013, including the registration requirement for funding or donations.
• Initiate broad consultations with all relevant stakeholders, including civil society representatives, to revise laws which are problematic for freedom of expression, in line with international standards.
• Ensure that all human rights, including freedom of expression, are protected and promoted online as well as offline, in line with the 2012 UN Human Rights Council resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet.
- ARTICLE 19
- Association for Progressive Communications
- Civil Rights Defenders
- Human Rights Club
- Freedom House
- Index on Censorship
- International Federation of Journalists
- International Media Support
- Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety
- Media Diversity Institute
- Norwegian Helsinki Committee
- PEN International
- Reporters Without Borders
Photo by: Tofik Babayev / AFP