Protesters call for release of political prisoners, imprisoned journalist appeals for support
On 25th August 2021, the Chairman of the Public Association for the Study of Democracy, Mirali Huseynov, gave an extensive interview on civil society in Azerbaijan. In the interview, Mirali Huseynov said that a clear distinction must be made between non-governmental organisations and civil society, the latter being a broader concept. Although Huseynov talked about upcoming changes to ease legislation regulating NGOs, it should be noted that such discussions have taken place before, but the situation for civil society has not improved. On the contrary, a period of extended pressure on the sector followed. Many NGOs were declared illegal, and their employees lost their jobs.
Earlier, Civicus Monitor reported that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev had signed a decree to create a Public Agency to Support NGOs, and on 4th August 2021, Presidential Assistant Hikmet Hajiyev met with a group of human rights activists to discuss the development of NGOs in Azerbaijan. During the meeting it was announced that the new public agency has prepared several projects to improve the conditions of NGOs.
Separately, in an address to the Permanent Council of the OSCE on 30th September 2021, the U.S. Chargé d'Affaires at the Mission to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Courtney E. Austrian, noted that although some elements indicate a paradigm shift in the regulation of civil society activity in Azerbaijan, the measures taken by authorities were still insufficient. He noted that although the Azerbaijani authorities have taken several legislative actions regarding the activity of NGOs in the country in recent times, the environment in which civil society operates is considered to be hostile, and the legislation in force still contains many restrictions. These restrictions hinder development of the sector and limit NGOs' ability to deliver services to beneficiaries who need them.
After the launch of operations in Nagorno Karabakh in September 2020 and the transfer of the region to the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan, the number of politically motivated protests in the country decreased considerably. However, in October 2021, a protest was organised in front of a hospital in a Baku prison - the first one after a long period, organised by an opposition political party. The protesters, chanting "Freedom for political prisoners!", demanded the release of Niyamaddin Ahmadov, a member of the Popular Front Party, as well as other political prisoners. Ahmadov, arrested in April 2020 for violating pandemic restrictions, went on a two-week hunger strike and faces between 10 and 12 years in prison after being charged with terror. Eleven people, including protesters and journalists, were detained during the protest, with the police citing violation of COVID-19 restrictions. The police released most of those arrested on the same day, while two members of the Popular Front Party were fined.
One week after the protest against Ahmadov’s detention) and the detention of journalist Anar Abdulla (see below in expression section), a new protest was organised by activists. In addition to the demands for the release of political prisoners, the demonstrators opposed the decision to replace Republic Day, commemorated on 28th October, with a new holiday, Independence Day, on 18th October - an issue that would jeopardise the governing formula enshrined in the Constitution. Specifically, they protested against the government’s proposal to remove the word "Republic."
Five civic activists were detained during the protest for allegedly disobeying and ignoring police orders. Upon their release, some detainees said they had been beaten.
Separately, on 8th November 2021, on the first anniversary of the Nagorno Karabakh war - Victory Day - Azerbaijani authorities pardoned about 3,000 people, from more than 16,000 people on the list. According to the Azerbaijani press, no political prisoner was among those amnestied.
A transgender woman was found dead in August after she was murdered and her body burned on 22nd August 2021 in the Puta settlement of Baku's Garadagh district. As a result, several members of the transgender community staged a protest in front of the Human Rights Defender's office, asking the authorities to make public more information about the crime. Local media reported that the police detained a suspect, who was later identified as Mirshahid Mehdiyev, a resident of Agjabedi region.
Weeks later on 3rd September 2021, OC-Media reported that an influential Instagrammer, Sevinj Huseynov, urged the Azerbaijani authorities to take radical measures against sexual minorities and to expel them from the country so as to maintain the country’s image, according to her. Earlier, she also came out with similar statements after the transgender woman (mentioned above) was found dead.
Although authorities responded to this statement by announcing that they would take action against the incitement to violence, a week later, journalist Avaz Hafizli chained himself to the gate of the Prosecutor General's Office in protest against inaction by authorities.
Anar Abdulla, an Azerbaijani journalist and activist, was sentenced in October 2021 to 15 days in prison after he was accused of hooliganism and resistance to police action. On 5th October 2021, Abdulla was summoned by authorities to explain some critical posts he had published on his social media channels in relation to the increase in prices for goods and services in the country.
Shortly after arriving at police headquarters, he was detained on the pretext of resisting the police. According to his lawyer, Abdulla was beaten while in police custody, and did not admit the accusations made against him.
In separate developments, imprisoned human rights activist and journalist, head of the Legal Education of Sumgayit Youth NGO and editor of the "Yukselish Namine" website, Elchin Mamed, urged the international community to support his release from detention. Mamed was arrested in March 2020 and later sentenced in October 2020 to four years’ imprisonment after being convicted for "theft" and "illegal storage of ammunition and weapons."
In his appeal, the journalist explains how his rights were violated, including through restrictions imposed on his lawyer, censorship of correspondence and the rejection of requests for release from illegal detention.
Several international human rights organisations including the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OPHRD)expressed concern about Mamed’s deteriorating health while in detention. They also criticised the refusal to mitigate his punishment, given that the journalist was denied the right to a fair trial, and highlighted the grave violations of his rights by authorities.