Daniel Hamilton: We should register our discontent about Azerbaijan's human rights record
Daniel Hamilton works in government relations and is a former Conservative councillor. He writes in a solely personal capacity. Follow Daniel on Twitter.
On Wednesday, two key resolutions will be debated in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe concerning human rights in Azerbaijan.
Such resolutions will be crucial in persuading President Aliyev and the Azeri government to pursue much needed human rights reforms in a country where stunning economic success has yet to be matched with respect for freedom of expression and assembly. With the outcome of the vote on a knife-edge, Conservative delegates must send a clear message in support of democracy and freedom of speech and vote in favour.
The first resolution, authored by Maltese MP Joseph Grech and Spanish Senator Pedro Agramunt calls upon the Assembly to endorse a report prepared by the Council of Europe’s special envoys for Azerbaijan outlining “growing concerns with regard to rule of law and respect for human rights’, and calling for the “full implementation” of basic freedoms including freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association.
The second resolution focuses on the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan; including journalists, bloggers and peaceful protesters sentenced to lengthy prison terms for opposing the Aliyev government. The report concludes that the judicial process in Azerbaijan “can be and appears to be abused for political ends, in order to intimidate, silence, or otherwise neutralise opponents seen as threats by the ruling elite, both activists of secular or religious opposition parties and independent civil society activists, lawyers, human rights defenders, and journalists”.
The adoption of these resolutions is a crucial step in ensuring Azerbaijan complies with promises it has made to the UK Government to bring about democratic and judicial reforms. Such reforms are painfully necessary.
Since the adoption of the country’s current constitution in 1995, Azerbaijan has not held a single free and fair election. There is currently not a single opposition Member of Parliament sitting in the country’s National Assembly.
In 2011 alone, 50 domestic and foreign journalists were harassed or attacked while more than 70 political prisoners remain behind bars.
While President Aliyev authorised the release of a number of political prisoners in December, scores of journalists and human rights activists remain behind bars. Hooliganism charges are still pending against photographer Mehman Huseynov, human rights activist Ogtay Gulaliyev and student union leader Dayanat Babayev; all of whom face the threat of significant jail time if prosecuted.
Journalists continue to be regularly threatened, assaulted or harassed with impunity in Azerbaijan, while carrying out, or in retaliation for, their work. Indeed, the independent human rights organisation Freedom House supported by former US President Bill Clinton ranks Azerbaijan's press as "not free", indicating that the country has one of the world's most hostile media environments.
There have been no serious investigations or prosecutions into the dozens of physical attacks against journalists in recent years, including into the murders of newspaper editor Elmar Huseynov in 2005 and writer and journalist Rafiq Tagi in 2011.
In 2012, there were many cases of violence against journalists, as they covered the protests leading up to and surrounding the Eurovision Song Contest, held in Baku last May, which were often dispersed by the police using excessive force. In April 2012, reporter and Index on Censorship award winner Idrak Abbasov, was brutally beaten and hospitalised while documenting house demolitions by the state-owned oil company SOCAR. One month earlier, Khadija Ismayilova, one of the few independent investigative journalists, who has investigated high-level corruption in Azerbaijan, was the subject of a vicious smear campaign including the release illegally-recorded footage of her engaged in sex act online. Nobody has been brought to justice in either case.
There has also been a recent crackdown on the right to freedom of assembly and association.
In November 2012, new legislation was introduced increasing punishments for those involved in unauthorized protests. Fines for taking part in such protests were increased to up to £1,000 for participants and £3,000 for organisers. The law came into effect on 1 January. On 12th January, a protest was held in the centre of Baku in reaction to the suspicious death of an army cadet. More than twenty men were subsequently charged and fined various amounts ranging from 300 to 600 manat (roughly equivalent to pounds).
With the lack of free independent media and the restrictions on citizens’ ability to freely express their views through protest actions, the internet remains a key realm for freedom of expression. However, it has become increasingly encroached upon with the Azerbaijani government blocking select websites featuring opposition views, and monitoring the internet use of protest leaders. Many of the journalists, bloggers and activists charged or arrested appear to have been targeted by the authorities because they have expressed critical political views online.
Azerbaijan’s story is not solely a negative one. Fuelled by oil exports, the country has made impressive economic advances in recent years. Baku’s glistening, modernistic skyline and the progressively-improving living standards of the country’s people are testament to that success. Additionally, the government has gone to great lengths to tackle Islamic extremism and its root causes.
Despite all of these positive advances, human rights concerns remain an inconvenient afterthought for President Aliyev and his government. If Azerbaijan wishes – and it does – to be seen as a modern, democratic nation, it can no longer put off much needed reforms.