NHC inputs to the Preparatory meeting EU-Azerbaijan Human Rights Subcommittee
In connection with today’s meeting in preparation of the upcoming meeting of the EU-Azerbaijan Subcommittee on Justice, Liberty, Security and Human Rights and Democracy (Brussels, 24-25 November 2011) the Norwegian Helsinki Committee participates while presenting a paper outlining some the main challenges of human rights in Azerbaijan. We have in particular emphasized the deficiencies in the rule of law and the sharp increase in the number of political prisoners in the country. We also present a list of political prisoners and bring up the lawless situation in the Autonomous republic of Nakhchivan.
Read the full text of our paper below:
Preparatory meeting: EU-Azerbaijan HR Subcommittee
Contribution from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.
Oslo, 12 November 2011. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee is grateful for the opportunity to address the subcommittee and to present this short paper outlining some of our concerns with respect to the rule of law in Azerbaijan.
Convictions of persons on political grounds.
In Azerbaijan, we have seen for years that courts are being misused in the attempt of silencing journalists opposing the current regime. Now, opposition politicians, youth activists and human rights defenders are being targeted for convictions as well. Trumped up charges and limited access to defense and legal counsel, as well as convictions even though evidence is absent are common traits of these cases.
In March and April street protests were organised in Baku, protests considered illegal by the authorities. Protesters were brutally dispersed and dozens arrested and swiftly convicted to up to 15 days in prison, mostly in closed trials.
Several of the protesters and other activists have been convicted to long prison terms and currently trials against opposition leaders are ongoing. We also remind you, that the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly rapporteur on political prisoners in Azerbaijan Christoph Strasser has yet to be permitted by the Azerbaijani authorities to visit the country. The situation with political prisoners in Azerbaijan will be discussed on November 16 at the session of the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE) in Paris.
List of political prisoners:
We want to direct you attention to the following selected persons, convicted on political grounds.
1. On 4 May 2011 youth activist Jabbar Savalan was sentenced to 30 months’ imprisonment for alleged possession of drugs, a charge we recognise from a number of politically motivated convictions in Azerbaijan.
2. On 18 May 2011 29-year-old Harvard graduate Bakhtiyar Hajiyev was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, officially for having evaded military service. Hajiyev organised the “Great Peoples Day" Facebook action on 11 March in protest against the authorities. He was an independent candidate with support from opposition parties during the parliamentary elections in November 2010.
3. On August 27, 2011, Goychay District Court sentenced Vidadi Isganderov, a human rights defender, to three years in prison. He was found guilty of interfering with the November 2010 parliamentary election. Isganderov was a candidate in the elections for the Agdash-Goychay electoral district. After the elections he submitted a complaint to the police and prosecutor’s office alleging vote rigging in his district. He provided materials, including video footage, in support of his allegations, but the authorities failed to investigate them. Instead, they brought charges against him.
4. On August 26, a Baku court charged opposition supporters Zulfuqar Eyvazli and Babek Hasanov to 18 months of imprisonment; Sahib Karimov and Elshan Hasanov to 2 years of imprisonment; Elnur Israfilov to 2 1/2 years and Arif Alishli - 3 years. They all charged of "organizing actions resulting in the violation of public order and resisting and using force against government officials. They were arrested on 2nd April rally of the opposition’s Public Chamber.
5. On October 3, a Baku Court convicted leading opposition figures - Arif Hajili, Deputy Chairman of the Musavat Party, Tural Abbasli, head of Musavats youth wing and Mahammad Majidli of the Popular Front Party to two and a half years in prison. Fuad Gahramanli, the Deputy Chairman of the opposition Popular front Party received a two-year suspended sentence. They all were convicted for “promoting social unrest” in connection with the 2 April pro-democracy protests.
6. On October 10, four opposition activists - Ahad Mammadli, Ulvi Guliyev, Elnur Majidli and Rufat Hajibeyli were convicted to terms ranging from 18 months to 3 years for participating in unauthorized protests.
7. We wish to raise a case which has had far too little coverage recently. Ruslan Bashirli was a young activist and leader of a youth organisation called Yeni Fikir – New Thinking – which was inspired by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2005 and hoped to gather support for a corresponding scenario. In attempt to disgrace the political opposition, Azerbaijani secret service agents have lured him into a trap during a meeting in Georgia and he was filmed accepting a small sum of money from someone who was later presented as an Armenian. This was enough for Ruslan to be sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for treason in the summer of 2006. Ruslan was 26 years old at the time.
8. A case in a slightly different category is that of Mamedali Aliyev, a 70-year-old man who was sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment in 2008 for involvement in a so-called attempted coup in 1995. He had been in hiding for many years and several others who were convicted much earlier in the same case, called “The case of the generals”, were regarded as political prisoners by the Council of Europe. Aliyev is now very ill and has undergone a heart operation.
We are also extremely concerned over the October 28th 2011 arrest of the Khural newspaper editor-in-chief Avaz Zeynalli, on trumped-up allegations of corruption, blackmail and extortion. Zeynalli has recently published series of articles exposing vast corruption cases within the government, with naming the corrupted senior government officials. The large numbers of libel cases brought in recent period against to the newspaper by the authorities forced the paper to stop operating. Zeynalli could serve up to 12 years of imprisonment under the . Aftermath the arrest, his family was harassed, and several relatives were fired from jobs.
We remind the audience that the prisons of the Republic of Azerbaijan currently probably holds another at least fifty political prisoners, not mentioned here.
Norwegian Helsinki Commiteee is also concerned on the attempts of Azerbaijani authorities to hinder independent lawyers that defend victims of politically motivated arrests. The government-orchestrated persecution and the punishment of the lawyers under the politically motivated disciplinary and criminal sanctions not only create obstacles to the work of lawyers, but also has a chilling effect on other lawyers as well. One of the lawyers, Khalid Bagirov, has been suspended from the pro-governmental Azerbaijani Bar Association for one year, and the second, Elchin Namazov, has been permanently disbarred and faces criminal sanctions. Both lawyers were defending the rights of the several opposition activists in the courts. Other independent lawyers, Aslan Ismayilov and Elchin Sadigov have also received warning on possible disbarment by the Azerbaijani Bar Association on the grounds of “violation of the rules of advocate’s code of ethics”.
We also want to remind this audience of the fact that the murder of editor and publisher Elmar Huseynov in 2005 is yet to be solved. We share the lack of confidence in the investigation of the murder with his wife, and have assited her in filing a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights.
The Authonomous Republic of Nakhchivan (NAR)
The Norwegian Helsinki Committee would like to highlight the autonomous republic of Nakhchivan as a region which has particularly serious problems in the field of human rights. Late last year we published a report in which we pointed out abuses of NGO activists, journalists and ordinary citizens. The report can be found on www.nhc.no.
On August 24, Turac Zeynalov, a resident of Nakhchivan, was summoned to the Ministry of National Security and never returned. The day after he was shown to his close relatives with a bag on his head. He had been so badly beaten that he was not able to move. Zeynalov, born in 1980, died. We welcome the fact that Azerbaijan's Human Rights Ombudsman Elmira Suleymanova has asked the prosecutor-general and national security minister to investigate Zeynalov's death. The responsible for Zeynalov’s death brought to justice.
Illegal expropriations, forcible evictions, and home demolitions
Rule of Law is also disrespected in the illegal expropriations, forcible evictions, and home demolitions in the capital, Baku. This became particularly apparent when the office building of human rights defender Leyla Yunus was illegally razed to the ground in central Baku on August 11, 2011. It is a striking fact in this case that Ms Yunus has been defending the rights of citizens who have suffered such violations of the rights to property. The Government of Azerbaijan must make sure that the victims of illegal deprivation of property will be compensated and that further illegal deprivation is stopped.
Democracy and elections
Azerbaijan held elections to the national assembly in November 2010. The elections were again a farce and the OSCE published a report with a number of recommendations. After almost 10 years’ work with new electoral laws there is still not a system for membership of electoral commissions which can build trust among the population. At this election the period permitted for election campaigning was also shortened so much that it was not possible to hold a genuine election campaign. Although this theme is now well-worn, it is important not to stop working on applying the necessary pressure on the authorities in order to dramatically improve the framework for elections. The authorities should find solutions to the many challenges through genuine consultation with the parties and civil society.
Freedom of Assembly
Local human rights activists frequently experience harassment and threats. Nakhchivan-based Malahat Nasibova and her husband Ilgar Nasib as well as Vugar Gojayev , have all experienced violence and threat of violence, that their close relatives have lost their jobs and that their children are thrown out of school. On 14-15 October in Venice, the Venice Commission concluded an assessment regarding the compliance of Azerbaijan’s new law on NGOs, and expressed concern at about the negative impact of new forms for registration of branches and representative offices of international NGOs wishing to operate in Azerbaijan.
The Human Rights House in Baku, which is commonly known as “The Norwegian” Human Rights House because of the Norwegian initiative behind Human Rights House Foundation, has been forcibly closed by the authorities. Also the activities of National Democratic Institute were suspended.
Opposition parties are also concerned about restrictive measures of the recently amended Law on Political Parties, and the Venice Commission has currently this law and amendments under consideration.
The authorities obstruct a free media in almost every possible way. Imprisonment and violence against journalists are everyday events, and legislation and bureaucracy are also misused to obstruct media which oppose the authorities. The small alternative press which remains must be protected. One particularly potent weapon used against journalists and editors is legislation which makes defamation a criminal offence. According to Azerbaijani authorities, amendments to the legislation to abolish criminal defamation is underway, and may be presented to the Parliament (Milli Majlis) before years’ end. We sincerely hope this is the case.