Wave of repression in Azerbaijan: joint letter to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe

Index on Censorship, Human Rights House Foundation and People in Need sent a joint letter on 13 August 2014 to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe Thorbjørn Jagland, following his statement on Azerbaijan.

Secretary General Thorbjørn JaglandDear Secretary General,

We are writing to you to express our concern and disappointment with your 11 August 2014 public statement, following your agreement with President Ilham Aliyev that a joint Committee between the Presidential Administration and representatives of the civil society, established in 2005, would be re-convened. You called this initiative “a good opportunity to go through the charges brought against the human rights defenders and to re-launch dialogue between the authorities and civil society.”

This announcement comes in the midst of an “unprecedented repression against civil society leaders in Azerbaijan.”

We are disappointed that you have abstained from any public comment on the charges against the human rights defenders. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights considers the charges against Rasul Jafarov and the travel ban against Emin Huseynov as “another disturbing illustration of how human rights defenders in Azerbaijan are systematically threatened with an instrumental use of criminal suits.” In her statement issued on 3 August 2014, the rapporteur on human rights defenders of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Mailis Reps denounced Leyla Yunus’ arrest and detention and expressed “concern for the true motivation underlying the charges levied against her,” calling the arrest “another example of the unrelenting suppression of independent voices and crackdown on civil society in the country. This is an unacceptable violation of Azerbaijan’s duties as a member of the Council of Europe.”

We are surprised that you did not publicly call for the release of the detained human rights defenders, at least from the pre-trial detention, which is not necessary and presents a risk to the heath condition of Leyla Yunus. Intigam Aliyev and Arif Yunus also have problematic health conditions.

It is unclear to us which committee you refer to, and we understand it is in fact a working group established in 2005 on political prisoners in the country. The people, who have been over the last years working on the issue of political prisoners in the country and on core human rights issues, are now behind bars or left the country for security reasons. The civil society in Azerbaijan has grown in size and developed in professionalism in the last decade, and now includes strong voices for the promotion of human rights, such as the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), which was sealed whilst you spoke with President Aliyev on 11 August. Who will today choose the representatives of Azerbaijani civil society in that working group?

To launch a dialogue platform in these conditions and without first step by the government, meaning the unconditional and immediate release of human rights defenders, will at best be ephemeral, and might possibly be counterproductive. How will this group operate without the key professional and defenders who are now jailed or detained? There is no need to “go through the charges brought against the human rights defenders”; they just need to be dropped because they are unfounded and unfair, and indeed based on laws, which de facto criminalise the work of human rights defenders. As Secretary General, you indeed give the impression that you endorse policies by which governments can choose their civil society, fostering it with support for loyal voices and repression for critical voices, contrary to the values embodied by the Council of Europe.

Those persecuted and arrested human rights defenders in Azerbaijan are also the ones, which inform and cooperate with institutions of the Council of Europe, including yourself. They have international recognition and wide outreach. In June 2014, when President Aliyev addressed the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Emin Huseynov, Rasul Jafarov and Intigam Aliyev together organised a side-event in Strasbourg, critical of the Azerbaijani human rights record. This wave of repression is related to Azerbaijan’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe and indeed a reprisal against critical voices cooperating with and reporting to the Council of Europe mechanisms.

We believe that your role is to protect and defend Council of Europe institutions, including those cooperating with them. We therefore regret that you have not chosen to use your influence and the power of your office to call for immediate and unconditional release of those human rights defenders and have not condemned their arrest.

Jodie Ginsburg, Index on Censorship
Florian Irminger, Human Rights House Foundation
Adela Pospichalovaon, People in Need 



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