Azeri Authorities Dismiss Bad Human Rights Report

Council of Europe mission finds problems with freedom of expression and association.

A scathing report on human rights in Azerbaijan prepared by the Council of Europe has provoked an angry reaction from the country’s government, while the opposition has said the authorities should take it as a warning that they need to do better.

The June 29 report, which followed a five-day mission to Azerbaijan by the CoE’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, focuses on violations of freedom of expression and association, the conduct of law-enforcement officers, and the administration of justice.

“Freedom of expression of opinions is limited in Azerbaijan,” said Hammarberg. “The country needs vast improvements.”

In his findings, Hammarberg expressed particular concern about reported threats, harassment, and violence against journalists and human rights activists that had not been investigated. He urged the Azerbaijani authorities to carry out an “effective and independent investigation” into such reports with a view to bringing the perpetrators to account.

“Anyone imprisoned because of views or opinions expressed, including Eynulla Fatullayev, Emi Abdullayev and Adnan [Hajizada], should be released immediately,” Hammarberg said.

Fatullayev, editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper Realniy Azerbaijan was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in jail for aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation, and has been in prison since 2007. In April this year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that his conviction was unlawful and demanded his immediate release.

Abdullayev and Hajizada, both bloggers were given sentences of two year and two-and-a-half years each on charges of hooliganism, but rights defenders are certain the authorities targeted them because of the political content of their blogs.

The CoE commissioner also demanded that Azerbaijan bring its legislation into line with European standards and suspend jail sentences for defamation and libel.

He also recommended that the authorities allow the BBC, Radio Liberty and Voice of America to resume broadcasting on local FM frequencies.

With regard to recent legislative changes governing non-government groups, Hammarberg warned that these might restrict freedom of association.

The report also includes a separate chapter on the Nakhichevan region, which is geographically separate from the rest of Azerbaijan, and is sandwiched between Armenia and Iran. The commissioner expressed concern at the practice of compulsory sectioning of patients in mental institutions, a Soviet-era practice often used to silence opponents of the government. Last December, for example, two participants in an unsanctioned Shia religious procession in Nakhichivan were taken to a psychiatric hospital after police broke up the march.

The report met with hostility from Azerbaijani officials.

“International organisations, including the Council of Europe, are not always objective when it comes to Azerbaijan, especially on human rights, freedom of speech and other issues,” Samed Seidov, who heads the Azerbaijani to the CoE, told the Azerbaijani service of Radio Liberty. “We are more interested in the democratisation of our society than the Europeans are. We should not allow all the efforts the Azerbaijani authorities have made on these matters to be ignored, and these problems should not be used as a means to pressure Azerbaijan.”

Opposition politicians however, welcomed the report.

According to the deputy head of the Musavat party, Arif Hajili, “The Hammarberg report reflects in large part the true state of democracy – or rather the lack thereof.”

Hajili said the increasing amount of criticism coming from organisations like the CoE indicated that “the international community is no longer going to tolerate the lack of respect for human rights by the regime of [President Ilham] Aliyev, and has started calling things by their name.”

Azerbaijan’s rights activists were similarly buoyed by the report.

Emin Huseynov, director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, Emin Huseynov, said the document reflected all the concerns raised by rights defenders in Azerbaijan.

“Now the various structures of the CoE will have to take specific steps to influence the authorities to do away with the problems we are facing with human rights.”

Natalia Garakhanova is an IWPR-trained reporter in Azerbaijan.