While Azerbaijan is hosting and sponsoring big international sports events and releasing prominent political prisoners, the authorities are still jailing people who criticise them, and they have not amended the laws and practices that allow this.
Some of the panellists pointed to how states operating in the same way as Azerbaijan could undermine the whole regional system.
Recently released activist Rasul Jafarov talked about all the people still behind bars:
“I’m glad today because I have the chance to talk about the people still behind bars. We can’t say we have solved the problems in Azerbaijan by a few releases. We are not happy to talk about political prisoners. We talk about them because we want them out. Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe, thus, the authorities have commitments.”
Jafarov was imprisoned on trumped-up charges for more than 20 months, but he has not given up hope:
“We hope there will be no need to talk about political prisoners in Azerbaijan at the next Council of Europe session in October. We have to be optimists.”
Since 2009, several amendments to legislation have increased the president’s power, and restrictive amendments to NGO laws since 2013 have reduced the space for civil society. These laws restrict the registration of NGOs and their access to funding, and the authorities have used them to prosecute those working for NGOs on charges such as tax evasion.
Azerbaijani activist and chairperson of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety Emin Huseynov remarked:
“The crackdown started with the change to the constitution, allowing the president to be re-elected. Then Ilagar Mammadov [opposition politician] and Anar Mammadli [Chairperson, Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre] were arrested”
Zhorab Ismail, a policy analyst who has written a report focusing on the restrictive laws, criminal prosecutions, and tax penalties affecting NGOs in Azerbaijan, emphasised that this has to change:
“If we want to see any progress, we need to push the government to change legislation.”
Nikolaj Villumsen, a Danish MP sponsoring the event, said:
“The Azerbaijani authorities are clearly violating human rights. The situation is very, very bad, and I’m frustrated with how little international pressure and attention there is on the situation. Therefore, it’s extremely important to have this event today, to highlight the grave violations taking place.”
He also talked about the strong lobby from Azerbaijan having a negative impact on the regional institution established to uphold human rights in Europe:
“We take notice of what’s going on inside the Council of Europe. We have a strong lobby for the regime at the Council and need to take urgent action. It is an embarrassment to the institution. Hopefully, we can stand firm for human rights and come together to end this. And this meeting today can be a step toward ending the violations taking place in Azerbaijan.”
Speaker and sponsors of the side event
The side event “A year of attempts to hide dire human rights record” took place 20 June 2016 at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
Human Rights House Network arranged the event together with International Media Support, Sport for Rights, Human Rights Club, MDT and Institute for Reporters`Freedom and Safety. Denmark, Britain and France sponsored the event.
Anar Mammadli, Chairperson, Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre.
Rasul Jafarov, Chairperson, Human Rights Club
Emin Huseynov, Chairperson, Institute for Reporter`Freedom and Safety
Zohrab Ismayil, political analyst, Hubert Humphrey Fellow
Gulnara Akhundova, Regional coordinator, International Media Support
Moderated by Paul Flynn, MP, Britain