Outrage at Aliyev's EU visit as activists continue to be persecuted at home

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There was widespread outrage at Azerbaijani President Illham Aliyev's visit to Brussels as blatant human rights and civic space violations continued at home. Aliyev was welcomed by top European officials to discuss renewal of the Azerbaijan - European Partnership agreement merely weeks after his government arrested and allegdly tortured a prominent blogger for freely expressing his views (see below). To coincide with Aliyev's visit, Human Rights House Foundation, Human Rights Watch, International Partnership for Human Rights and Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum (EaP CSF) organised a special debate called 'EU/Azerbaijan Partnership: Human rights under the red carpet?'.

According to EaP CSF, the event sought to highlight the continued human rights violations in Azerbaijan, including the detention of activists and journalists, and the severe restrictions imposed on civil society organisations and their access to foreign funding. Among the speakers were Emin Milli, an Azerbaijani human rights activist, and managing director at Meydan TV who lives in exile in Germany, and Khadija Ismayilova, an Azerbaijani investigative journalist, conditionally released in May 2016 after two years of imprisonment. Ms. Ismayilova joined the meeting via video link from Baku, where she is unable to leave the country due to a travel ban. As we previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, Ms. Ismayilova's repeated harassment has recently extended to online abuse, allegedly perpetrated by authorities. In the video below, exiled journalist Emin Milli, spoke frankly about the EU's complicity in propping up the Aliyev regime. 

Many human rights advocates have called upon the EU to make further cooperation with Azerbaijan contingent upon an improved situation for civil society. In support of this movement, on 6th February, a letter signed by 76 NGOs was addressed to EU leaders. The letter urged the EU to predicate any bilateral partnership on tangible human rights reform in Azerbaijan. The letter noted:

'Any new partnership agreement signed with Azerbaijan should similarly include strong provisions committing the government to upholding universal human rights standards and securing lasting, meaningful human rights reforms' 

In a separate development that underlines the lack of commitment to human rights in Azerbaijan, Nefes, the LGBT Azerbaijan Alliance, has started an online campaign to force Azerbaijani authorities to pass a law protecting the LGBTI community. As it stands, there are no legal mechanisms or laws to protect the community against discrimination and hate crime. Azerbaijan gained notoriety earlier in 2016 for being rated the worst country in Europe in which to live as an LGBTI citizen. Nefes hopes that a groundswell of public support will turn the tide against homophobia, transphobia and biphobia in Azerbaijan.

Expression

On 9th January, a well-known Azeri video blogger and press freedom advocate, Mehman Huseynov, was detained in Azerbaijan on administrative charges, after being accused of resisting arrest. The Azerbaijani blogger was abducted by security forces dressed in civilian clothes and held for several hours. After his release, there is credible evidence to suggest that Huseynov was tortured during his detention through suffocation and electric shocks.  

Huseynov gained prominence as a leading political blogger in Azerbaijan and has previously been arrested by Azeri security forces. In his capacity as Chairman of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) a leading Azerbaijani media press freedom group, many fear that Huseynov is being targetted as a result of his activism. In the context of a well-documented decline in freedom of expression in Azerbaijan, Huseynov's abduction has become symbolic of brazen repression characterised by abuses committed against journalists by authorities with impunity. A recent statement signed by twenty freedom of speech organisations drew attention to Huseynov's case: 

'All charges against Huseynov must be dropped unconditionally, and those responsible for his torture should be tried in an independent and impartial manner, as should those in the chain of command who are implicated'.

A court later charged Huseynov under article 535.1 of the Administrative Offences Code (Disobeying the Police). The next day, on January 10, 2017, the blogger was released and fined 200 AZN. Huseynov is one of the numerous journalists, writers and media workers who are unable to leave Azerbaijan due to travel bans. 

In another worrying development, on 9th February, the Ministry of Internal Affairs brought a private prosecution against Mehman Huseynov. Reports note that the Huseynov is being prosecuted for undermining the police, making baseless allegations and deceiving the public. As the case is a private prosecution, it implies criminal intent and could ultimately lead to imprisonment. In a statement, the Ministry of Internal Affairs commented on the situation: 

'The Ministry of Internal Affairs has filed a petition with the Prosecutor General’s Office of the country to give a legal assessment of Mehman Huseynov’s act of slandering the police by accusing them of a serious crime. Additional information on the results of the investigation will be published.'

Huseynov's case continues. 

On 24th January, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted the resolution on attacks against journalists and media freedom in Europe. In response to the arrest of Azeri chairman of IRFS, the Council of Europe has included in this resolution amendments that specifically call on the Azerbaijani authorities to stop targeting civil activists, journalists and human rights defenders.