When Azerbaijan served as chair of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, it scoffed at the spirit and purpose of the organization and moved vigorously to squash all forms of free speech at home. Now that Baku no longer holds the top spot, civil society activists are worrying about what Azerbaijani authorities will do next.
All civil society actors in Azerbaijan currently are grappling with a daunting dilemma: either stop engaging in rights-related activism or pay a high price, in particular face the prospect of criminal prosecution. Dozens of activists and independent journalists remain behind bars for no reason other than engaging in rights work or tacitly promoting free speech. At the moment, the country’s jails hold at least 90 political prisoners, almost double the number in Belarus and Russia combined. These prisoners of conscience face a variety of cooked-up charges, including hooliganism, drug possession, tax evasion and treason.
Azerbaijan relinquished its Committee of Ministers chairmanship on November 13. Far from softening its repressive behavior and cleaning up its awful rights record during its six-month tenure, the government stepped up its suppression of internal dissent. At least 13 activists were arrested and at least 10 others were convicted on politically motivated charges following flawed trials. Authorities rounded up the country’s most senior human rights defenders and other leading activists, including Leyla Yunus, veteran human rights defender and director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, and her husband, the political commentator Arif Yunus. They also detained Rasul Jafarov, chairman of Azerbaijan’s Human Rights Club, Intigam Aliyev, prominent lawyer and chairman of the Legal Education Society, and the famous opposition journalist Seymur Haziyev.
Some of those detained in recent months have serious health conditions. Yet, authorities keep them locked up, even as they fail to provide any information to suggest that pre-trial detention is warranted. They also have not released any credible evidence that would support the charges against these recent detainees.
In addition to politically motivated arrests, dozens of draconian laws regulating the operations of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been adopted. The offices of several local and international NGOs were recently raided, their bank accounts frozen and staff interrogated. As a result of increasing pressure, many groups have felt compelled to cease operations.
While the Azerbaijani government has been ruthless in its clampdown, it remains sensitive about its public image, a fact underscored by Baku’s efforts to lavish money on PR in Washington and the EU. Baku’s PR acumen needs to be kept in mind by those who mine for signs of its intentions. Some Western partners have lauded President Ilham Aliyev’s government for releasing four political prisoners in mid-October. The truth is the release does not change anything, and it is certainly not indicative of a softening of the Aliyev administration’s stance on dissent. It is important to note that before the four were pardoned, they were coerced into acknowledging in writing their “crime,” begging for forgiveness, praising Aliyev, objecting to being called “political prisoners” and denouncing the “anti-Azerbaijan or pro-Armenian activities” of international organizations.
Aliyev’s administration has a habit of using a “revolving door” tactic, releasing few and arresting new political prisoners. Since the October amnesty, at least three more activists have been jailed on bogus charges. Police accused two of them on hooliganism for “swearing in public place,” and the other faces “narcotics” charges. They all have rejected the accusations, insisting their arrests are retaliation for their rights-related work.
During the Azerbaijani chairmanship, the Council of Europe chose mostly to avert its eyes to Baku's violations or make toothless statements and merely symbolic criticisms. This head-in-the-sand approach has prompted activists in Baku to question the point of the Council of Europe.
Sadly, Azerbaijan’s refusal to release people imprisoned on politically motivated charges and end its abuses has not affected its relationships with the United States and European Union. Western diplomats tend to prefer backroom diplomacy to public pressure, but, in Azerbaijan’s case, there is absolutely no indication that private talks have had any positive effect.
The international community’s inaction means that the end of the Azerbaijan’s independent human rights community is nearing soon. Unless Aliyev's government understands that there are serious consequences for its abuses, Baku’s free pass on human rights abuses will continue.
Vugar Gojayev is an Azerbaijani researcher and freelance journalist.