Exiled journalist kidnapped in Georgia and now in the hands of Azerbaijani police

In May 2017, the European Parliament (EP) hosted the 14th meeting of the European Union - Azerbaijan Parliamentary Cooperation Committee (PCC) to discuss bilateral cooperation. According to the Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF), dialogue between the two parties has been intermittent, since the EP adopted two resolutions on Azerbaijan in 2014 and 2015 aimed at persuading the authorities to cease their harassment and intimidation of civil society organisations, opposition activists and independent journalists. The international pressure on Azerbaijan's government did lead to to the release of several political prisoners and journalists in the spring of 2016.

According to HRHF, however, key concerns from the 2015 EP resolution remain. Therefore, both national and international organisations insist that any bilateral economic cooperation with Azerbaijan should be conditioned on concrete improvements in the situation for civil society, opposition parties and independent media outlets in the country. At the PCC, however, amendments on human rights issues were voted down during the official dialogue between the EP and Azerbaijani parliamentarians.

In response to the lack of traction on human rights issues at the meeting, Florian Irminger, Head of Advocacy at HRHF, stated firmly:

“The EP cannot allow itself to be further silenced in the name of a futile dialogue. Such practice risks to compromise the important work done by the EP during the years of denouncing human rights violations in Azerbaijan, and to damage the institution’s image as a beacon of freedom for oppressed human rights defenders, political activists and journalists in the country".

Expression

On 29th May 2017, Azerbaijani investigative journalist Afgan Mukhtarli was kidnapped in Tbilisi, Georgia, where he has lived in exile since 2015. His kidnappers forcefully took him into Azerbaijan and brought him to the police. Two days later, he faced charges of violently resisting a law enforcement officer at Azerbaijan’s border. According to a lawyer who managed to visit him while in detention, Mukhtarli had marks on his face, indicating some forceful blows, and one of his ribs appeared broken.

According to Human Rights Watch, Mukhtarli and his wife Leyla Mustafayeva, also an investigative journalist, left Azerbaijan in fear of retaliation for their criticism and investigative journalism activities. Their reports on corruption in the Ministry of Defense were published by independent media outlets, including the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and Meydan TV. Before his kidnapping, Mukhtarli had been investigating Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's extensive business ties with Georgian businesses.

On 31st May, Reporters without Borders urged the Azerbaijani authorities to release Mukhtarli and demanded an investigation into the case, exploring the possibility of Georgian complicity in his kidnapping. If such is the case, this could have serious implications, as many Azerbaijani journalists and activists have sought refuge in Georgia, believing that their personal and professional security will be better safeguarded. Also on 31st May 2017, Georgian citizens protested against the kidnapping. Civil society has requested that the Georgian authorities to investigate the case and punish the Georgian accomplices. 

On 15th June, the EP passed a resolution calling on the Azerbaijani government to release Mukhtarli and respect press freedom. 

Association

In early May 2017, a court in Azerbaijan ordered the extradition of husband and wife human rights activists - Leyla and Arif Yunus - from the Netherlands. The activists’ lawyer requested that the court allow his clients to take part in the hearings via video conference call; however, the court rejected the proposition. The court’s decision could have led to international arrest warrants brought against both activists, but a plea to Interpol by 26 human rights organisations has secured the activists' safe stay in the Netherlands at least for the near future. As reported by online news site - Meydan TV, Arif Yunus wrote about the case on his Facebook page, stating:

“The Azerbaijani authorities' request for our arrest and forced deportation will be rejected. Thus, the question of our compulsory return with the help of Interpol is closed. But we are not going to finish our fight with this”. 

The Azerbaijani authorities arrested the couple on separate occasions in July 2014 and they were sentenced to seven years in prison in August 2015. According to Front Line Defenders and other international human rights organisations, the charges against them, which include tax evasion and fraud, were politically motivated. In April 2016, they were released from prison due to health concerns and permitted to travel to the Netherlands for care, where they have remained since. 

Peaceful Assembly

Several opposition political party members were fired from their jobs for participating in rallies against decisions by state authorities. According to a leader of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, party activists have recently come under increased pressure for participating in duly-sanctioned demonstrations. The online news portal - Caucasian Knot -  identified at least two cases of pressure exerted on teachers and one case on an employee of a private company for participating in sanctioned protests.