International NGOs have expressed their deep concern regarding the alarming state of human rights in Azerbaijan, which has significantly worsened in the weeks since the Eurovision Song Contest was held in Baku in May 2012.
Number of journalists were arrested, as well as political activists.
As the Human Rights House Foundation said in its intervention at the United Nations Human Rights Council, “the Eurovision Song Contest ended in Baku but in Azerbaijan repression continues.”
Persecution of journalists and activists
In the aftermath of Eurovision song contest, Hilal Mammadov, editor-in-chief of Talysh-language Tolishi Sedo (“the Voice of the Talysh”) newspaper, joined the ranks of Azerbaijan’s journalists behind bars as he was arrested on charges of drug possession. The Nizami District Court in Baku sentenced him to three months of pre-trial detention. Mammadov has denied the charges and said he believes he has been targeted for political reasons.
A previous editor-in-chief of Tolishi Sedo, Novruzali Mammadov, died in prison in 2010 while serving a 10-year sentence on politically motivated charges of high treason. The Talysh are a minority group who mostly live in the southern regions of Azerbaijan near the Iranian border.
Photographer Mehman Huseynov is viewed by many local campaigners as “the first victim of Eurovision”.
He was detained for about 24 hours from 12-13 June 2012 on criminal hooliganism charges before being released, and faces up to five years’ imprisonment as the charges still stand.
Huseynov, who is affiliated with local rights group the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), was active with the Sing for Democracy campaign, which used the Eurovision Song
Contest as a platform to promote democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan. The charges against him stem from an altercation with police during an opposition protest on 21 May 2012, which Huseynov was trying to photograph.
Justice has not been carried out in the cases of journalists Idrak Abbasov and Khadija Ismayilova, who were very publicly critical of the authorities in the run-up to Eurovision.
Abbasov, a correspondent of IRFS and Ayna and Zerkalo newspapers, was severely beaten to the point of hospitalisation on 18 April 2012 by a group of employees of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) while filming their demolition of houses in his village. SOCAR later blamed Abbasov for instigating the attack.
Ismayilova, an investigative journalist with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), was subjected to a particularly vicious personal attack as a sex video of her filmed by hidden camera was posted online after she refused to be silenced by a previous blackmail attempt.
Other journalists and activists remain in detention or jail in connection with exercising their right to freedom of expression, including Anar Bayramli, Ramin Bayramov, Vugar Gonagov, Zaur Guliyev, Aydin Janiyev, Taleh Khasmammadov and Ilham Suleymanov.
Although nine activists imprisoned during the March and April 2011 pro-democracy protests in Baku were released by presidential pardon on 22 June 2012, two remain in prison: political activist Shahin Hasanli and human rights defender Vidadi Iskenderov.
On 12 June 2012, the Azerbaijani parliament adopted legislation limiting the right to access information by allowing Azerbaijani companies not to disclose information pertaining to their registration, ownership structure and shareholders.
This legislation was introduced following the publication of a series of articles by RFE/RL correspondent Khadija Ismayilova exposing the private business interests of the president’s family. The same day, the Azerbaijani parliament also adopted legislation granting the president and first lady lifetime immunity from criminal prosecution.
Finally, despite the provision in the “National Action Programme for increasing the efficiency of human rights and freedoms in the Republic of Azerbaijan” that defamation should be decriminalised in 2012, at present, defamation remains a criminal offence.
Civil defamation provisions continue to be misused to hamstring the ability of independent and opposition media outlets to operate, as evidenced by the 13 June 2012 verdict of the Yasamal District Court in Baku, ordering Azadliq newspaper to pay AZN 30,000 (approximately GBP 25,000) to the head of the Baku City Metro, Tagi Ahmadov, and the recent defamation lawsuit filed by Azerbaijani Airlines against Yeni Musavat newspaper demanding AZN 500,000 (approximately GBP 408,000) in compensation.
Resolution on political prisoners
The Committee of Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Council of Europe has adopted resolution on political prisoners in Azerbaijan. The resolution calls upon the Azerbaijani authorities to resolve more than 80 cases of political prisoners currently in jail in the country as well as to ensure that no further arrests are made on politically motivated charges. The adopted resolution was drawn from a report by Christoph Strässer, the Special Rapporteur chosen to follow up on the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan.
Since his appointment in 2009, Strässer has been systematically denied a visa by the Azerbaijani government which he requires to enter the country to carry out research and meet with prisoners in fulfilment of his mandate.
Such a refusal to cooperate with a special mandate to this extent is unprecedented at the Council of Europe, even though Azerbaijan is legally bound by the European Convention on Human Rights and other sources of international law to respect and protect the right to freedom of expression.
However, the Azerbaijani authorities have failed to fulfil this commitment and frequently violate this right. Journalists, bloggers, activists and ordinary citizens in Azerbaijan continue face harassment, attacks and imprisonment for voicing opinions critical of the authorities.
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Civic Solidarity Platform statement
The Civic Solidarity Platform functions as a decentralized advocacy network of independent civic groups from across the OSCE region.
The Civic Solidarity Platform expressed its concern about the situation in Azerbaijan. The full statement will be published here as soon as possible.
International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan statement
The International Partnership Group is a coalition of international and Azerbaijani NGOs working to promote and protect freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. The coalition expressed its concern of the situation of human rights in the aftermath of Eurovision in a joint statement.