A last chance for EU to stop the crackdown on independent voices in Azerbaijan?

11 human rights organisations urge the EU Special Representative for Human Rights to unequivocally remind the Azerbaijani regime on its responsibilities to protect human rights, as a member of EU`s Eastern Partnership Initiative and the Council of Europe.

Stavros Lambrinidis, EU Special Representative for Human RightsMonday 23 February, the European Union Special Representative (EUSR) for Human Rights, Stavros Lambrinidis, is going to visit Azerbaijan. As Special Representative for Human Rights, one expects Mr Lambrinidis to send a strong message on the issue of political prisoners on which the EU (with the exception of its Parliament) has clearly been weak during the past months. 

Letter from the organisations to Stavros Lambrinidis (also on your right).

After just a few days in Baku the Special Representative for human rights will have the privilege or the burden, depending on how one sees it, to give a clear direction to the EU’s policy towards Azerbaijan in view of the past year’s crackdown on civil society.

The election of a new European Parliament (EP) last May and the appointment of a new European Commission (EC) last October offered a few glimpses of hope to those pushing for the EU to be stronger and more coherent in its human rights policy abroad. On 18 September 2014, in one of the first resolutions of the new term, the EP condemned the arrests of a number of human rights defenders and journalists and called the Azerbaijani authorities to take concrete steps to improve the human rights situation in the country. Then, questioned on Azerbaijan at a hearing before the European Parliament on 6 October 2014, the newly appointed EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, made it clear that the EU was to stress the need for respect of human rights in its talks with the authorities in Baku.

So far, words have not been followed by actions and, to a large extent, not even by stronger words as the crackdown in Azerbaijan continues its course inexorably, and free and independent voices are being silenced one by one. Over the course of 2014, the Azerbaijani authorities have convicted or imprisoned at least 34 journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and civil society activists. The country’s most prominent investigative journalists and a number of leading human rights defenders are in prison, punished for their criticism of government policies. Sham charges such as ‘tax evasion’, ‘high treason’, ‘illegal entrepreneurship’ and ‘abuse of power’ are used to justify the criminalization of fundamental rights and freedoms.

Statements by the EU have become weaker and weaker as their main goal seem to be to praise announcements of presidential pardons that did not touch more than a few political prisoners, and certainly not the prominent cases. In the meantime, and on the wave of its September resolution, the European Parliament tried to keep up the attention on Azerbaijan: Leyla Yunus was selected as one of the Sakharov Prize finalists and the EP was ready to send a delegation to Azerbaijan in order to visit her as well as other political prisoners. Unfortunately, due to a clear lack of collaboration by the Azerbaijani authorities, this visit has not taken place yet.

In light of all the abovementioned events, the visit of the EUSR to Azerbaijan bears even more importance and the message that will be brought to Baku will then be used to define the EU’s stance towards the current crackdown. Will the EUSR unequivocally remind Azerbaijan of its responsibilities as a member of the EU’s Eastern Partnership Initiative and the Council of Europe to protect human rights? His meetings in Baku should be used to raise concrete concerns about human rights in the country, making it clear to the EU Delegation in Baku that addressing these issues is of core importance and an essential component of the EU’s partnership with Azerbaijan.

These concerns should also be voiced publicly to show direct support to those unjustly imprisoned: the EUSR should not stay silent and prove instead his commitment to the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders which clearly include the protection of human rights defenders in third countries.

The visit of the Special Representative could also serve as a catalyst and push the EU Delegation to be more active and outspoken. The absence of direct action aimed at providing physical protection for human rights defenders, notably in the case of Emin Huseynov, is particularly worrying as, in a more general way, the lack of support for activists under threat and absence of clear condemnation of the numerous imprisonments.

Any positive action undertaken by the Special Representative during his forthcoming visit to Azerbaijan can help alleviate the suffering of many people. Visits to several of the unjustly incarcerated individuals and requests for information about those with deteriorating health situations, mainly Intigam Aliyev, Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus, are paramount to the positive outcome of this visit. Participation in the hearings of political prisoners is also of utmost importance: the right to a fair trial and the independence of the judiciary are at the core of what Europe stands for. Hence, a high-level presence at hearings could send a sign to the judiciary on the importance given to those principles by the European Union, in addition to the discrete observation done by the EU Member States.

Last but not least, ahead of the European Games taking place in Baku in June, the EU as well as each Member State should bear in mind their role as Azerbaijan’s partners and neighbours. In this context they should insist that this terrible human rights situation is addressed before Baku hosts the European Games, and that these unjustly imprisoned people are immediately released. Against a backdrop of systematic state-sponsored repression, these events will fail to reflect the spirit in which they were established. A policy shift by Azerbaijan towards an open society is urgently required if these Games are to be a success.

Given the current situation, it would be extremely difficult for the EU to justify a high-level presence at the European Olympic Games in Baku. Hence, it is everyone’s hope that the Azerbaijani authorities stop this unprecedented crackdown and restore the rights of the country’s courageous free voices. This has to be done now as not only human rights, but also human lives, are at stake. 

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