Referendum in an atmosphere of intimidation and fear | Den norske Helsingforskomité

Referendum in an atmosphere of intimidation and fear

(19/03-2009) The Referendum over Constitutional amendments in the Republic of Azerbaijan took place in an atmosphere of intimidation of voters and of all those who opposed the reform of the Constitution. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee has listened to numerous witnesses recounting how they have been subjected to pressure to coerce them to go the vote during yesterdays’ poll. The hastily called referendum was never subjected to a meaningful public debate, which would have allowed for raising any relevant concerns related to the Constitutional reforms. The speedy procedure also puts into question the legality of the called referendum.

The Constitutional reform put to referendum contains as many as 41 amendments and additions to 29 articles of the Constitution. The referendum covers a wide range of issues with no apparent common theme. In the case of a referendum, all voters are in need of thorough information, and the campaign period should allow for discussion of the pros and contras of each amendment. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in the period leading up to the referendum.

The amendment causing the highest concern is the removal of the two-term limit of the President of the article 101(V).

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee believes that the abolishment of the two-term limit of the President of the Republic will contribute to further consolidation of powers in a country where power is already concentrated. The core of the rule of law is the separation of powers. In Azerbaijan, as is also the case in other republics, power is concentrated in the hands of the President, while that of the legislature or the judiciary is relatively weaker. Therefore, the regular change of regime through the process of election is the method to prevent too strong a concentration of powers in the hands of the President. By removing the limitation of terms, Azerbaijan is moving away from European governance practices. In Europe, presidency without limitation of terms exists only in the Republic of Belarus, often called ‘the last dictatorship in Europe’.

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee is also very concerned about the additions to the articles 32 (III) regarding the Right to personal immunity after which the Constitution now provides that “no one shall be followed, filmed, photographed, recorded, or subjected to any other similar actions without his or her knowledge or despite his or her disapproval, except for cases established by law”. The article opens to a wide interpretation of the right to privacy, which in turn could be used in practice to exclude unwelcome journalists from reporting on events of public interest.

In Azerbaijan, the practice of impeding the freedom of expression is already a matter of serious concern, and the existing legislation has been frequently misused the to raise defamation charges against journalists critical to the government. Article 32 (III) may open further such abuse. As an example, the photographic documentation of a police official abusing a citizen may be refused publication under the pretext of personal immunity, or, in the case of publication, the journalist and media outlet may be subject to administrative or criminal responsibility.

The killing of the prominent editor Elmar Huseynov in 2005 remains unsolved. The journalists Qanimat Zahidov, Eynulla Fatullayev, Mushfig Huseynov and Novruzali Mammedov have been sentenced to long prison terms and are considered prisoners of conscience.

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee believes that basic conditions for democracy and freedom of choice is not present in Azerbaijan. This requires a vivid public debate free of fear for repercussions, a free press and equal conditions for all political forces in the country.

The referendum carried out on 18 March 2009 may have contributed to worsening this picture.

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee wants to take this opportunity to address the President and encourage the Azerbaijani government to take all necessary steps to open up the society to dissenting voices and allow a free press. This is an absolute premise for creating an environment for future free and fair elections. The Republic of Azerbaijan is in the process of establishing a modern and economically powerful state. A democratic state is a necessary condition for further development to the advantage of all Azerbaijani people.

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee again urges the international community to reinforce its pressure on the government of Azerbaijan to:

- Free all political prisoners
- Allow a free press and issue a moratorium on defamation charges
- To create equal conditions for all political forces

For more information please contact:

Head of Information Berit Lindeman, phone: 00 47 90 93 33 79 or 055 294 05 04.