Critics detained for COVID-19 related remarks
Civic activists, opposition leaders and journalists under attack amid COVID-19 pandemic
On 24th March 2020, the Azeri authorities introduced a special quarantine regime in a bid to curb the spread of COVID-19. Days before, on 17th March2020, the Azerbaijani authorities amended the legislation on the information law, obliging owners of internet information resources to prevent the publication of false information online. The amendments also prohibit publication of information that might cause other situations that are dangerous to the public.
Responding to the amendments, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, cautioned against using the amendment to stifle journalists and said:
“I fully understand the need to combat false information during a health emergency. But the amendment to the law on information, which aims to combat the publication of false information that poses a threat to the life and health of the population and seeks to avoid panic, should not impede the work of journalists and their ability to report on the pandemic. The media has a key role to play in providing important information to the public in this situation and to combat ‘fake news’ on the crisis.”
Since then, several violations of human rights and freedoms were documented, particularly involving civic activists, journalists and leaders of opposition parties. Authorities were accused of abusing COVID-19 measures to systematically target opposition supporters and critics by punishing those who exercised their right to freedom of speech. In March 2020, authorities arrested and detained Tofiq Yagublu, a top opposition figure, on false hooliganism charges. Members of opposition parties such as Popular Front, ReAL, Azerbaijan Democracy and Prosperities (ADR) Movement, Musavat, and independent political activists were also arrested for allegedly violating the quarantine or posting political or pandemic-related posts on Facebook. The leader of the D18 Movement was also unlawfully followed by police, and the movement’s office was unlawfully closed on 8th March.In mid-April 2020, it was reported that at least six activists and a pro-opposition journalist were sentenced to detention after criticising the government’s handling of the pandemic.
These arrests came just days and weeks after president Ilham Aliyev alluded to using the pandemic restrictions to crack down on the country’s political opposition in his address to the nation on 20th March.
Several other journalists were also arrested in the weeks that followed. Natig Isbatov was accused of violating lockdown regulations while filming a protest outside an employment office in Baku, while Ibrahim Vazirov and Mirsahib Rahiloghlu, were detained following their articles which criticised the authorities' efforts to stop the spread of COVID19.
Ibrahim Vazirov, a journalist for Kanal24 Internet TV, was arrested on 13th April 2020. Police asked him to delete online reports critical of the government's quarantine measures. Mirsahib Rahiloglu from Reportyor.info, who had published interviews with citizens who complained about the lack of financial support during the lockdown, went through similar experiences.
I welcome the release of Azerbaijani journalist Afghan #Mukhtarli, who was abducted from Tbilisi in 2017. I intervened many times on his behalf to #Azerbaijan authorities. He is on his way to Germany and will be able to reunite with his wife, Leyla Mustafayeva, and daughter.— OSCE media freedom (@OSCE_RFoM) March 17, 2020
Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli released from detention
On 17th March 2020, it was reported that Azerbaijani journalist Afghan Mukhtarli, was released from prison after serving two years of his six year sentence. Mukhtarli was abducted in Tbilisi in May 2017 only to reappear two days later in a court of law where he was convicted for illegally crossing the border back into his native Azerbaijan, assaulting a border guard and carrying 10,000 euro of undeclared currency. However, Mukhtarli’s account of the situation differs with that of authorities as he claimed that he was abducted in Georgia, beaten up, forced across the border and had the money forcefully stashed in his pocket. After his release, authorities immediately put Mukhtarli on a plane to Germany.
Mukhtarli had gone into exile in Georgia in 2015 as he feared for his safety because of his investigations into Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s alleged links to corruption. Human rights groups often criticised his prosecution and sentencing, terming the charges as baseless.
Azeri activist detained for a Facebook post one day after release from psychiatric clinic
Just a day after his release from a psychiatric clinic where he was admitted against his will, Aqil Humbatov, a representative of the Azerbaijani opposition Popular Front of Azerbaijan, was detained by law enforcement. According to Radio Free Europe, he was detained on 30th March 2020 for criticising the government on social media for ignoring the rights of poor children. Shortly after that, he was placed in a psychiatric clinic. On 1st April 2020, Humbatov was released but was detained the following day after he uploaded new posts on Facebook, this time describing poor conditions in the psychiatric clinic.
Azeri activist detained for demonstrating police brutality on social media
In a separate incident, Elvin Irsadov from the city of Lankaran, who has repeatedly criticised the authorities for the fake fight against corruption, was detained on 18th May 2020 and later sentenced to 16 days in detention. According to Radio Free Europe, he was first threatened and thereafter detained for sharing images on Facebook that demonstrated police brutality. Shortly before he was detained, Irsadov wrote on a social network that he had been publicly threatened and defamed by a person he did not know.
March for women rights ends with police violence
On 8th March 2020, Azeri women, rights activists and members of the Feminist Movement of Azerbaijan (AFH), marched through Baku to mark International Women’s Day. The march was however met with force by the police who tried to disperse the crowd and block their path.
Dozens of protesters were injured as police officers used violence, while around a dozen of them, all men, were detained and later taken to a remote area in the district of Qobustan outside the capital where they were left. According to the reports, some female protesters said the police officers slapped and kicked them. Eventually, the police ordered the protesters to go home and they monitored them until they reached their homes. Journalists also had their cameras grabbed and were physically assaulted by the police.
In the days leading up to the march, several participants received calls from the police ordering them to report to police stations, while one reported that her Telegram account was hacked five times before the march. Authorities also denied a request by the organisers to hold the march in the city centre, instead telling them to hold the demonstration in the Lokbatan township on the outskirts of Baku. The organisers rejected this proposal and insisted on having the march in the city centre.
Ehsan Zahidov, the chief spokesperson for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, described the march as an ‘illegal action whose participants were removed from the scene’.
Student protest ends with arrests
On 1st June 2020,six university students who demonstrated against a decision of the Azerbaijani Ministry of Education to hold exams and complete the academic year were detained and fined for violating quarantine regulations. The students expressed their indignation at the fact that the authorities did not take into account the conditions in which the courses took place during the pandemic. According to them, the online courses started only in April and not all students were able to attend them. Because of the prevailing situation, the students made requests to the Ministry of Education asking for a postponement of the summer session and a postponement of fees for the current semester. They also proposed that those who had already paid be reimbursed.
The next day, two activists protested in front of the Ministry of Education headquarters in solidarity with the students and condemned the attitude of the Ministry officials. The police destroyed one of the protester’s posters and forbade them from protesting, citing reasons that the protest would attract the public and lead to a violation of social distancing rules.
Protesters, journalists beaten during protest in Baku
On 18th March 2020 supporters of Azeri businessman Mubariz Mansimov held a protest in front of the Turkish Embassy in Baku to oppose his arrest in Turkey over alleged Gulen links, a network accused of organising an attempted coup in 2016. The arrest followed an order by a Turkish court.
Civil society publishes report highlighting challenges faced by NGOs and issues recommendations
The Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum published a report presenting the perspectives of civil society on the future of the Eastern Partnership project. The report was released on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the launch of the project.
The study highlights the challenges faced by NGOs in the last 10 years and proposes a series of recommendations from civil society that the Azerbaijani authorities must implement within the shortest time.
Chapter 5 of the report "Strengthening the Role of the Civil Society" highlights challenges faced around the freedom of association in Azerbaijan and which have had a negative impact on the ability of civil society to shape public policy. In particular, the report notes that the legal framework has been a major setback, especially following changes to NGO legislation in 2013-2014 which drastically weakened civil society organisations.
In a separate development, the Steering Committee of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum issued a statement on 12th June 2020 condemning Azeri authorities' abuse of COVID-19 restrictions to impinge on freedoms and civil rights. The statement mentioned several cases of abuse and noted in particular police excesses in Baku on 8th and 9th June 2020, when officers raided an apartment building in the Yeni Yasamal area, detaining 11 people after residents denounced the arrest of a man for lockdown violations in the area on 7th June. One of those arrested in that operation, Karim Suleymani, alleged that he was subjected to five hours of physical abuse by more than 30 officers during his detention.