Prison is increasingly the place to find the most prominent of Azerbaijan’s journalists, activists and freethinkers. The last public glimpse of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova came on December 5, when a police-car carried her off to prison as she waved to friends and supporters, who ran alongside chanting “Khadija!”
Her apartment has since been searched, her Facebook page already deactivated (not long before her sentence became public) and she remains in pre-trial detention in Kyurdakhany prison, outside the capital, Baku, for the next two months.
Ismayilova, an RFE/RL reporter who also has worked for EurasiaNet.org, stands accused of allegedly pushing a former colleague to attempt to commit suicide. The charge follows a series of exposes by Ismayilova into corruption among members of the presidential family and other senior officials.
The arrest has sparked a fusillade of international accusations against Azerbaijan again trying to silence critical media voices. Rallies to protest Ismayilova's detention already have been planned for this week outside of Azerbaijan's embassies in Washington and Tbilisi.
Baku, as usual, has brushed off the criticism as “baseless and biased,” and insists that vague certain circles seek to sully Azerbaijan’s good name. “Azerbaijan has never prosecuted any of its citizens as well as any mass media representative over freedom of speech, and they never suffered from pressure by any official authority,” claimed President Ilham Aliyev’s spokesperson, Azer Gasimov, the pro-government APA reported on Monday.
The tug-of-war started publicly this summer when the New-York-City-based Human Rights Watch, which is not an EITI member, called for the group to end Azerbaijan’s membership over its harsh treatment of civil-society activists, journalists and opposition members.
Others agreed it was time to put Azerbaijan under the lens. “If people can attend every EITI meeting but have their bank accounts frozen for being critical - or can get hounded by authorities for asking questions publicly about oil or mining deals once they step outside those meetings - then that is not an enabling environment.” said alternate EITI board member Brendan O’Donnell from Global Witness, a natural-resources-corruption watchdog, in an October-16 statement.
After a check-up visit in Baku in late September, EITI management announced that “The situation facing civil society in Azerbaijan is clearly problematic.”
With Azerbaijan’s prisons increasingly full of government-detractors, it might have seemed to many only a matter of time before Azerbaijani prosecutors would again focus on Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent journalist known for her exposés of government corruption. Speaking from Strasbourg, Ismayilova told EurasiaNet.org that she expects to be arrested on October 3, upon her return home to Baku from a trip to Europe.
Ismayilova received a court summons on charges of criminal libel during this trip, travel intended to relay what is widely seen as a wholesale crackdown on civil society in the energy-rich, ex-Soviet republic. An award-winning RFE/RL reporter who also has worked for EurasiaNet.org, Ismayilova needs to appear in court the day she returns to Baku.
“I will be arriving with a lawyer and my main lawyer will be waiting [in Baku],” she said.
Her trip was closely watched in Baku. At one human-rights talk in Warsaw, hosted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Ismayilova and several other participants, wearing t-shirts with the photos of Azerbaijani political prisoners, turned their backs on a presentation on human-rights issues, which, they charged, lacquered over ongoing repressions. Azerbaijan’s government-linked media was quick to attack Ismayilova, claiming she was commanding a group of people from Armenia, the country’s longtime foe.
Authorities in Azerbaijan are seeing red after a democracy-watchdog activist they jailed received an international award from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Granting the Vaclav Havel prize for civil society activism to Anar Mammadli constitutes outside pressure on an independent state, Ali Hasanov, a key aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, declared on September 30.
In a familiar line, Hasanov attributed the award to contrivances by Azerbaijan’s enemies. He said that such steps serve to “support the fifth column underwritten by certain foreign forces” [a frequent euphemism for enemy-neighbor Armenia] and that Azerbaijan is free to arrest those who violate the law. “It is quite obvious that certain organizations, acting behind the façade of human-rights advocacy, are not at all independent and follow very concrete instructions,” he declared, the pro-government APA news agency reported.
Azerbaijan, however, currently chairs a committee within one of the "certain organizations," the Council of Europe, the continent ’s main human-rights body, and the award put the CoE in an awkward place. (Azerbaijan holds the seat until November.) Many critics argue that the 47-nation forum is not the place for Azerbaijan, which recently has detained scores of journalists, civil-society leaders and activists who criticize the government.
A worldwide club for companies, governments and civil-society groups which support publicizing information about revenues received from energy and mining operations, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, known as EITI, puts public transparency at the center of its creed.*
For Human Rights Watch, however, that’s the rub. Azerbaijan’s increasingly frequent liking for prosecuting or harassing critical human-rights activists, youth-activists, opposition members and independent journalists does not signal a deep respect for transparency or good governance, the group argues.
“Azerbaijan is blatantly violating EITI rules, and EITI cannot afford to be complicit in this hypocrisy,” charged senior business and human-rights researcher Lisa Misol in an August 14 statement.*
Azerbaijan, an EITI founding member, joined the movement in 2003, and was deemed compliant in 2009. Today, its State Oil Fund sits on the EITI board.
The movement has not yet responded publicly to HRW’s criticism.
In its own response, Azerbaijan might be sorely tempted just to press the Play button on a pre-recorded rebuttal. Rarely a week goes by that the government argues that it’s not violating the law in prosecuting activists and journalists, but upholding it.
There are controversies at both ends of the roughly 3,800-kilometer-long pipeline project, which involves three sections; first, stretching from Azerbaijan to Turkey; the second, from Turkey to Greece; and the final leg, from Greece to Italy. Tony Blair is advising this final segment, the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP).
In southern Italy, where TAP, is expected to make its landing, worries persist that the project will interfere with olive-growing and the mating of seals, as well as cause damage to the area’s rich cultural heritage, The Guardian has reported.
At the Azerbaijani start of the line, critics charge that Blair's helping hand for TAP will only further enable Baku to crackdown on civil rights without fear of the international consequences.
Never a pinup for democratic reform, Azerbaijan has seen its human rights situation go from bad to worse of late with the authorities arresting critics right and left, and non-government flows of information feeling the pinch.
In the latest from Azerbaijan’s ongoing series of arrests of government critics, an outspoken rights defender, Leyla Yunus, has been arrested, and accused of spying for enemy Armenia.
Yunus never made a secret of her attempts to promote peace with Armenia through civilian initiatives, but what some call citizen diplomacy, Azerbaijani prosecutors called treason. Prosecutors claimed Yunus, who chairs the Institute for Peace and Democracy, was visiting Armenia to impart sensitive information. Her husband, Arif Yunus, was also charged on July 30, but was released pending trial.
Earlier this year, Leyla Yunus spoke up vocally for another imprisoned alleged enemy of the state, journalist Rauf Mirkadirov. Police then detained the Yunuses at the airport and have withheld their passports since. Leyla Yunus has defied several subpoena requests, until she was remanded on July 30. Prosecutors now accuse Yunus and Mirkadirov of spying together for Armenia.
After toying with the idea of introducing jury trials, the Azerbaijani government now has dropped the initiative altogether, choosing to keep the court system to itself.
For a country that now chairs the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the continent’s main human-rights body, that might seem a strange move. But government-supporters say they do not trust lay citizens’ judgment in matters of law,. Critics counter that the government just doesn’t want to let go of its grip on the judiciary system.
MP Ali Huseynli, representing the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, allegedly sees jury systems as a Western thingamajigy that doesn’t work in this former Soviet republic. “Jurors are mainly people who do not have a law education and, therefore, often they cannot make legal judgments,” Huseynli commented as he and his fellow lawmakers axed the jury-amendment from a bill on courts and judges last week.
Prosecutors, he added, had advised against introducing the jury system.
Critics counter that the real issue is that juries and jurors would mean more work for prosecutors and more room for court independence. “The practice [of jury trials] would have ended politically motivated prosecutions of citizens on fabricated charges,” commented lawyer Namizad Safarov, Contact.az reported. The jury-system proposal stemmed from the influence of international organizations, he added, calling the decision to ditch the amendment “another step away from democracy.”
The Azerbaijani government has never been celebrated for its sense of irony. Yet even as it settles into its chair at the Council of Europe's Commission of Ministers and assures the world that it's got that democracy thing down pat, Baku appears to be busy cracking the whip.
Most recently, with a demand for lengthy prison sentences for three imprisoned civil-rights activists -- deemed political prisoners by international human-rights groups -- and by the May 19 arrest of three Jehovah's Witnesses.
But perhaps Council of Europe Secretary-General Thorbjørn Jagland got the full story. Jagland spent May 20-21 in Baku for the official kickoff of an "action plan" intended to help Azerbaijan meet its CoE obligations and "address some fundamental human rights and rule of law issues," as the document states.
On May 21, prosecutors addressed those issues in their own way -- by requesting prison sentences of between six to nine years for civil-society activists Anar Mammadli, Bashir Suleymanli and Elnur Mammadov, charged, after critical monitoring of the 2013 presidential election, with alleged violation of NGO-registration rules and abuse of their official duties.
As it kicked off the final countdown to its chairmanship of the Council of Europe's Commission of Ministers, Azerbaijan on May 6 sentenced eight youth activists to lengthy jail terms for allegedly organizing mass disturbances and possessing narcotics and weapons.
The group, detained in 2013 after attempting to organize a protest, were sentenced to between seven to eight years in prison, RFE/RL reported. Their sentencing sparked clashes between supporters and police, two of whom could be seen carrying off a protester upside down in a photo posted on Facebook by sympathizers. Dozens allegedly were arrested.
Apparently seeing no irony in its choice of timing, Baku today also announced the priorities for its six-month CoE role, which starts on May 14. The official to-do list includes a few items championed as well by the imprisoned youth activists -- namely "the fight against corruption" and "education on human rights." Also included are the less controversial priorities of "social issues, [the] multiculturalism inherent in Azerbaijan and education. . ." according to the APA news agency.
Deputy Foreign Minister Mahmud Mammadguliyev announced.