In a dialogue with the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention at the UN Human Rights Council, Human Rights House Foundation raised the recent detention of Mehman Aliyev, the director of Azerbaijani independent news agency Turan.

He was arrested and detained from 24 August to 11 September on charges of illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power. His detention brought a strong international reaction, and he has now been released. However, he cannot leave Baku without permission from law enforcement officials and he will still face the charges against him.

Mehman Aliyev’s lawyer, Fuad Aghayev, confirmed the early release from detention. He said: “I am very happy Mehman has been released from detention. I believe this was the result of the reaction of the international community.”

Meanwhile, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has been reporting back to the UN on its recent mission to Azerbaijan. Speaking at the Human Rights Council, the chair of the Working Group said that while some recent reforms undertaken by Azerbaijan were welcome, the country still had “ongoing challenges” with respect to arbitrary detention of human rights defenders and those who were critical of the government.

In its statement, HRHF joined the Working Group in urging Azerbaijan’s authorities to investigate all allegations of arbitrary arrest and detention, to prosecute and punish appropriately those found guilty and provide victims with redress.

The action against Mehman Aliyev and his news agency Turan is only the latest in a long line of charges against independent media organisations. It follows the recent sentencing of the editor of opposition Azadliq newspaper, Faig Amirli, to three years, three months in prison on charges of inciting religious hatred and tax evasion. Prior to this, photojournalist Mehman Huseynov was attacked by a group of plain-clothes officers in Baku in January 2017. When Mehman Huseynov went public about the abuses he suffered during this attack, the local police chief brought a criminal lawsuit against him for defamation. He was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison.

Concluding its visit to Azerbaijan, the Working Group stated that “human rights defenders, journalists, political and religious leaders continue to be detained under criminal or administrative charges as a way to impair the exercise of their basic human rights and fundamental freedoms and to silence them.” It added that “In every single place the delegation visited, it could observe that many persons had been detained without a proper assessment of the need for them to be detained and for a very long period of time.”

The reporting by the Working Group reaffirmed some of the key concerns of civil society and human rights defenders about the dangerous human rights trends being observed in Azerbaijan, which they expressed at previous sessions of the Human Rights Council as well as at the European Parliament. At the June session of the Human Rights Council, Human Rights House Foundation asked in relation to Azerbaijan: “What is the threshold for human rights violations at which point [the Council] is obliged to act?”

Florian Irminger, Head of Advocacy at Human Rights House Foundation, said: “We can see from the timing of releases, including that of Mehman Aliyev, that the government is responding to the pressure and scrutiny of the international community. This should serve as an encouragement, to lift regional and international responses to the level that Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record warrants.”

He noted: “We should be careful not to interpret recent releases of human rights defenders and journalists in Azerbaijan as signs of systemic change, quite the opposite as legislation now reinforces the stranglehold that the government has over civil society. More scrutiny and action is required if we are to see genuine human rights reforms occurring in Azerbaijan.”