When, in May 2014, Azerbaijan took over the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, few could have predicted that just a few months later most of the main human rights defenders in the country would be sitting behind bars. One by one, the Azerbaijani authorities arrested prominent activists on trumped-up charges making the Council of Europe, chairmanship coincide with an unprecedented repression of civil society.

The reactions by the Council of Europe and its Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) were at first weak, but, finally, during the latest plenary session a few concrete achievements were reached.

Anar Mammadli’s father receiving Václav Havel prize from PACE President Anne Brasseur in September 2014 in Strasbourg (© PACE, 2014) 


Anar Mammadli’s father receiving Václav Havel prize at PACE in Strasbourg in September 2014 (© PACE, 2014)It all started on Monday, 29 September, when the Parliamentary Assembly awarded the 2nd Václav Havel Human Rights Prize to Azerbaijani human rights defender Anar Mammadli, Chairperson of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre (EMDS). The prize was awarded in 2013 to Ales Bialiatski. Anar Mammadli’s work in promoting democratic institutions and civil and political rights and his long-standing collaboration with the Council of Europe’s bodies were recognised by PACE President Anne Brasseur. Undoubtedly, this was also a message directed to the Azerbaijani authorities that, on 26 May 2014, had sentenced Anar Mammadli to 5 years and 6 months of imprisonment.

In her opening address to PACE, Anne Brasseur underlined that her recent visit to Azerbaijan allowed her to visit a few human rights defenders, “long-standing partners of the Council of Europe, who are now in prison […] Our visits to such prisoners are seen everywhere not only as a symbol but as a political message. All those who defend rights and freedoms must be able to count on our tangible support.”


On the following day, the PACE Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights unanimously adopted a statement in which it “deplores the recent arrests and convictions of human rights defenders and NGO leaders in Azerbaijan.” The statement mentions the names of Intigam Aliyev, Rasul Jafarov, Leyla Yunis, Arif Yunus, Anar Mammadli, Bashir Suleymanli and Hasan Huseynli, and calls “on the Azerbaijani authorities to release the above-mentioned civil society activists, refrain from unfairly prosecuting others and ensure the application of the standards laid down in the European Convention on Human Rights”.


Ales Bialiatski at Václav Havel prize ceremony for Anar Mammadli at PACE in Strasbourg in September 2014. In 2013, Ales Bialiatski received the first Václav Havel prize whilst in detention in Belarus (© PACE, 2014)Finally, on Thursday, 2 October, PACE adopted with an overwhelming majority (44 in favour, 4 against and 2 abstentions) a resolution on the progress of the Assembly’s monitoring procedure that assesses the developments in countries engaged in monitoring and post-monitoring dialogues. Concerning the situation in Azerbaijan, the Assembly expressed its concern for “the high number of reportedly politically motivated prosecutions of, and pressure exerted on, journalists, civil society activists and opposition supporters, as well as the deterioration in the respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms”.

Following these concerns MPs urged “the parliament and authorities of Azerbaijan to refrain from exerting pressure on civil society activists and journalists, to ensure that the justice system is not used for political purposes, and to immediately and unconditionally release all those held in pre-trial detention on politically motivated charges, to implement the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights and to fully respect basic human rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of assembly.”

In parallel with these decisions, an event on the unprecedented repression in Azerbaijan was organised by HRHF, together with International Media Support (IMS) in cooperation with members and partners of the Human Rights House Azerbaijan, as well as Article 19, Freedom Now and Human Rights Watch. In a room crowded with MPs, representatives from Member States and political advisors, there was a unanimous condemnation of the imprisonment and persecution of human rights activists.


“These recent positive actions should be welcomed, but the Council of Europe and its Parliamentary Assembly must continue raising these issues with the Azerbaijani authorities and publicly show support for political prisoners whilst calling for their immediate and unconditional release,” says Florian Irminger, HRHF’s Head of Advocacy and Geneva Office.

For long, the Council of Europe has not taken alerts from Azerbaijan and international NGOs seriously. Even in their latest information note, the PACE co-rapporteurs on Azerbaijan continue to underestimate the level of repression of civil society in the country by undermining information they receive from Azerbaijan and international NGOs.

In his question to the Committee of Ministers, MP Pieter Omtzigt (Netherlands), asks “what actions did the Committee of Ministers already take, or will take, to free political prisoners in Azerbaijan while that country is chairing the Committee of Ministers?”

“The Council of Europe office and Member States representations in Baku should do everything in their capacity to raise their voice and prevent further arrests of human rights defenders, as well ensure systematic observation of trials of human rights defenders and support to the families of those detained” commented Florian Irminger.

Summer of 2014 “a dark time” for Europe

Taking the floor at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on Thursday, 2 October 2014, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan Elmar Mammadyarov told the parliamentarians “the summer of 2014 will go down as a particularly dark time for our continent.”

He was not speaking about the unprecedented repression of civil society in Azerbaijan.

Many MPs questioned the Minister about the arrest of human rights defenders in the country, such as Tiny Kox (Netherlands), Frank Schwabe (Germany), Robert Biedron (Poland), Kristin Ørmen Johnsen (Norway), Pieter Omtizgt (Netherlands) or Michael McNamara (Ireland). The Minister’s answers were in line with those of President Ilham Aliyev in June 2014 at PACE: “There are no untouchable NGOs”, “The Council of Europe does not have a definition for political prisoners”, “I believe that freedom of association is clearly recognised by our constitution and is provided by the appropriate authorities without any restrictions” or “We have more than 3 000 NGOs that are actively involved in the country’s everyday activities, and only a small minority are not as transparent as they should be”.

The Minister also announced that the repression will continue in his answer to the question from MP Robert Biedron (Poland): “One by one, we will deal with every one.”

HRW’s Veronika Szente Goldston reacted by saying this summer was “dark times in Azerbaijan.”

Reprisal against Khadija Ismayilova

Khadija Ismayilova and Gulnara Baghirova (International Media Support) at PACE in Strasbourg in September 2014.

Khadija Ismayilova, Azerbaijani investigative journalist, participated to the side-event at the Parliamentary Assembly on Thursday, 2 October, as well well as other events.

Upon her return to Baku, she was excessively searched and obstructed at the airport. Customs control requested her to access her informatic material, especially her memory card.

Warning of such acts at the side-event, Florian Irminger said “reprisal against Azerbaijani human rights defenders has become a tradition, after ordering the Human Rights House Azerbaijan to cease all activities, arresting human rights defenders in January 2013, arresting Anar Mammadli, and the wave of repression following the June 2014 advocacy in Strasbourg.” Khadija Ismayilova is hence only one further illustration. ”Reprisal against those cooperating with the Council of Europe, such as lawyer Intigam Aliyev who represents so many clients at the European Court of Human Rights, is also an insult to the institution itself” he added.

In this regard, the Committee of Ministers requested to receive more information about the criminal charges pending against Intigam Aliyev, representative in several cases judged by the European Court and currently pending at the Court.

Media contacts:

Florian Irminger (English, French and German)
HRHF’s Head of Advocacy and Geneva Office
Tel: +41 22 33 22 552
Mob: +41 79 751 80 42
Email: florian.irminger