Political prisoners pardoned for the first time in history, critics term decision political move
According to The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, on 1st January 2019, several changes to the Tax Code entered into force. According to the Center’s experts, these changes provide for a set of tax exemptions which are in the interest of NGOs, among other actors. Examples mentioned by the experts include: "zero rate income tax from salaries for 7 years, 75% tax exemption for entities generating less than 200,000 azn/year (USD 116,981) with less than 10 staff members, etc.” These changes do not however qualitatively change the situation of civil society in Azerbaijan, which is still working under repressive conditions.
On the weekend of 6th - 7th April 2019, the Baku Mayor's Office declined to permit the opposition political party ”Musavat” to hold a rally, where they intended to mobilise their supporters to gather in Tofig Bahramov Stadium, Mehsul Stadium, and the Darnagul metro station to demand improvement in civil rights, including freedom of assembly and expression. On 3rd April, the Baku City Executive power rejected the party’s appeal to hold the protest. The Mayor’s office did not comment on the reason for this decision.
Ilham Aliyev pardons political prisoners in what is criticised as a front for EU partners
In mid-March 2019, President Ilham Aliyev pardoned over 50 political prisoners, a decision which representatives of civil society termed as a political move. CSOs argue that the head of state has been called upon to accept certain concessions in order to advance the negotiations for signing of the agreement between the European Union and Azerbaijan.
According to the press, Ilham Aliyev pardoned over 400 people in total, but this is the first time political prisoners (members of civil society, activists, bloggers, journalists and members of the opposition) have been pardoned.
While welcoming the positive development, the European Union External action Service also said:
“The European Union expects that further similar steps will follow in future in line with Azerbaijan's international commitments”.
Following the political decision, in early April, the EaP CSF Steering Committee (Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum), also raised concerns, insisting that more needs to be done to protect the rule of law in Azerbaijan. The committee highlighted several violations that are commonly perpetrated on those who criticize authorities including, repeated harassment from law enforcement agencies, threats and other forms of repression, detention for periods of 30 days, torture and ill-treatment in custody, and called for a reversal of this trends.
In a statement issued on 5th April, they said:
”Azeri authorities must do more to respect constitutional rights – particularly freedom of assembly and extend the amnesty to 70 others who remain behind bars.”
EDMS Report: Human Rights violations in Azerbaijan. The 2018 year in focus
In January 2019, the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre (EMDS), a member organization of Human Rights House Azerbaijan, released a report about the status of human rights in Azerbaijan for the year 2018.
According to the report, throughout 2018, politically motivated persecutions continued, and the number of political prisoners increased. Among the violations reported was on freedom of expression where 10 journalists and bloggers remained in detention and no journalists were released during the period. The number of blocked newspapers websites increased to 40.
On the right to freedom of assembly, the report highlights an incident where the police summoned around 150 opposition members, and the court sentenced 21 of them to 15-30 days of administrative detention after the opposition party (National Council of Democratic Forces) organised two rallies during the April 2018 Presidential Election period.
Obstacles related to the operation of NGOs (financing and fines, the procedures for registration of bank accounts) were ignored by authorities, following restrictions that were introduced in 2013-2014. Opposition parties and organisations also had their freedom of association restricted as the report notes that at least nine opposition members were jailed on criminal charges and administratively detained.
Political satire punished in Azerbaijan
On 2nd April, 2019, the Turan Agency from Azerbaijan reported about a 10 year court sentence that was imposed on a 21 year old activist for spraying graffiti in 2016. Bayram Mammadov was sentenced in October 2018 after he used graffiti to criticize the unexplained expenditure incurred by authorities for the former president’s annual birthday celebration.
Bayram Mammadov was detained in May 2016. During the police interrogations Baryam and his co-accused “made a false confession to drug charges after police beat them, forced them to remove their pants, and threatened to rape them with truncheons and bottles. At the court hearing, they retracted the false confessions, told the judge they had painted the graffiti and said that police beat them after they refused to apologize on camera.”
In October 2016, Giyas Ibrahimov was convicted on trumped up drugs charges after police had tortured him to confess. Even though he was detained for graffiti, he was sentenced in 2016 for the drug charges.
Civic Space Developments