Systematic reprisals against dissidents in Azerbaijan
The Azerbaijani authorities have a well-documented track record of ruthlessly suppressing critical dissent and harassing activists into silence. Recent attacks on journalists, harsh penalties for critical speech and censorship of independent media illustrate that threats against the freedom of expression are persisting.
Most recently, lawyers working to protect human rights defenders in Azerbaijan have suffered harassment and intimidation by the authorities. On 22nd November, the Council of Europe's Commissioner on Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, submitted written observations to the European Court of Human Rights on the harassment of lawyers in Azerbaijan. In a press statement, Mr Muižnieks commented on the situation, stating:
"Judicial harassment and retaliatory measures against human rights defenders and their lawyers continue to characterise the response of Azerbaijan’s authorities to those who express critical opinions and co-operate with international organisations to expose human rights violations in the country."
Mr. Muižnieks' observations referred to the disbarment of Khalid Bagirov, an experienced human rights lawyer who was well known for representing prominent human rights defenders. Mr Bagirov's disbarment is indicative of the systematic reprisals against anyone daring to speak out against the authorities.
In the context of worsening conditions for freedom of expression, in December 20 organisations from around the world signed the statement 'Stop Crackdown on Freedom of Expression in Azerbaijan'. Signatories of the statement call upon the Azerbaijani authorities to stop its multiple attacks on the freedom of expression, including the imposition of harsh penalties for critical speech online, the imprisonment of activists for nothing more than drawing graffiti, the blocking of access to independent media, and the harassment and violation of the rights of journalists and activists.
On 17th November, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, called upon the authorities in Azerbaijan to decriminalise defamation. This followed reports that on 15th November, the Prosecutor-General of the Republic of Azerbaijan submitted amendments to the Criminal Code to parliament. The new amendments extend the application of liability for discrediting the honour and dignity of the president to online expression. The penalties for defamation include prison sentences and fines of up to 1,500 manats (US$860). In a statement, Ms Mijatović stated:
"If adopted, these amendments would again send a negative signal about the state of free expression and free media in the country. I reiterate my call on the authorities to fulfil their longstanding promise to decriminalize defamation in Azerbaijan."
The statement by Ms Mijatović is the latest in a litany of repeated calls to the Azerbaijani authorities to repeal repressive defamation legislation.
The use of defamation laws in Azerbaijan has been long recognised as a tool for suppressing criticism of the government. On 25th October, Giyas Ibrahimov, a 22-year-old youth activist detained in May for spraying graffiti on a statue of a former President of Azerbaijan, received a 10-year jail sentence. During Mr Ibrahimov's months of detention, many fear that he was subjected to ill treatment by the authorities. Further, numerous international human rights organisations have drawn attention to the heavy-handed court sentence as further evidence of the unrelenting assault on the freedom of expression in Azerbaijan.
During November, Khadiya Ismayilova, a prominent human rights defender, was subjected to cyber-attacks. In a statement, Ms Ismayilova stated that there is no doubt that the Azerbaijani authorities are behind the attacks:
"This is how our government operates – we know because they have also done it to several youth activists, female youth activists... They post advertisements saying 'all sexual services are available' on a hacked Facebook profile, with their name and all their contact information.”
According to Civil Rights Defenders, the cyber-attacks are designed smear and ridicule women human rights defenders with sexual innuendos in an attempt to discredit their work and prevent their activism. As a prominent human rights defender and investigative journalist, Ms Ismayilova has been frequently targeted by authorities as a result of her activism.
Hopes have been raised recently than an improved system for CSOs receiving international funding will be put in place in Azerbaijan. On 21st October, the President of Azerbaijan signed a document which has the aim of simplifying the process for CSOs when registering foreign grants. The document, which came into force on 1st January, aims to institutionalise and speed up the steps taken to receive final approval from the government for the receipt of international funding, thereby reducing the legal and bureaucratic impediments faced by civil society. A 'one-stop-shop' approach will use different public institutions to serve various types of organisations: the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) for non-commercial entities and individuals; the Ministry of Economy for commercial entities; and the State Committee for Work for religious organisations or faith-based organisations.
While it is expected that this decree will ultimately lead to the simplification of processes for receiving funding in Azerbaijan, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, it is still unclear what exactly the 'one-stop-shop' procedure will mean. Further, in the context of the overall onslaught against independent civil society in Azerbaijan, many fear that the amendments will do little to improve the overall situation for civil society groups.
During the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, held in Brussels, Belgium in November 2016, representatives from the Azerbaijani CSO delegation held a protest against the detention of two Azerbaijani citizens, Dilgam Asgarov and Shahbaz Guliyev. Both activists were working for the International Committee of the Red Cross in the occupied Kalbajar district of Azerbaijan, and are currently being held in Armenia. Activists at the meeting in Brussels held pictures of the detained activists during the protest and called for their release.