Authorities quell dissent as referendum success consolidates state power
On 26th September, voters in Azerbaijan overwhelmingly approved 29 changes to the country's constitution during a controversial referendum. As part of the state's 'continuing crackdown on government critics', prior to the polls, activists attempting to protest against the referendum reported how authorities repeatedly harassed them through preemptive arrests and verbal threats. As they left one particular rally, some activists were beaten by plainclothes officers, bundled into police buses and detained for hours or days, often subjected to inhumane treatment such as depravation of food. According to the Institute for War & Peace Reporting thousands of people took part in anti-referendum street protests. Although the demonstrations were sanctioned by the municipality, police detained dozens of activists both before and after the events. Ali Novruzov, an activist from the NIDA youth movement reported how:
'They detained me until night and then released me on the condition that I appear the next morning. I showed up at nine in the morning. They detained me until the end of the rally. They shaved my head by force explaining that I was arrested for 15 days. But I was not arrested. I was simply let go.'
On 21st September, the head of the US delegation to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OCSE) noted his country's disappointment at 'reports of harassment and detention of activists and journalists before and after the rallies.' In early September, representatives of five civil society organisations in Azerbaijan wrote to the Council of Europe's secretary general, asking the Venice Commission to issue and opinion on proposed changes to the country's constitution, which they claim contravenes the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Civil society is specifically concerned that amendments grant the executive the ability to restrict 'freedom of assembly rights for "public order" or "morality" purposes and revoke Azerbaijani citizenship'.
Following his visit to the country in September, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Michel Forst issued a lengthy criticism of the state's enforced paralysis of the media, human rights activists and civil society in Azerbaijan. During a press briefing, Forst detailed how dozens of NGOs, their leaders, employees and their families have been subject to administrative and legal persecution, including the seizure of their assets and bank accounts, travel bans, enormous tax penalties and even imprisonment. He continued:
'I have been struck to observe the drastic impediments to the right to freedom of association, caused by the 2013-2015 legislative amendments to laws regulating civil society operations. The already challenging environment for NGOs has turned into a total crisis.'
The special rapporteur called on the authorities in Azerbaijan to release all human rights defenders currently in detention; to drop all charges against them; to ease restrictions on fundamental freedoms; and regulate NGOs in a manner which allows them to operate freely and receive funding.