Repression of Azeri civil society, NGOs and journalists has escalated significantly as the date of the Baku European Games approaches, says the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in a report published today. The report documents the repression of eight emblematic human rights defenders who have been arbitrarily detained, and details the series of legislative amendments recently adopted to silence independent voices.
“Most of the high-level leaders of the independent NGOs have been arrested. The conditions of detention are abominable and the declining health of some of them, such as Leyla Yunus and Intigam Aliyev is of serious concern,” stated Gerald Staberock, OMCT Secretary General.
In January 2015, the Observatory led a fact-finding mission to Baku to meet with civil society organisations. Despite several requests submitted to the authorities, the delegation was not allowed to visit the imprisoned defenders.
In the last two years, many former Soviet States have been severely cracked down on civil society by introducing extremely repressive policies. These policies, largely inspired by laws recently adopted in Russia, are paradoxically enforced in contexts where states are trying to improve their international image, often by hosting major public events. This was the case in 2014, when Belarus hosted the World Hockey Championship, and in Russia, when it organised the Olympic Games in Sotchi. It is now the case in Azerbaijan where the European Games will be held in June 2015. The international community must use this opportunity to express its concern with Azeri authorities regarding human rights abuses and the situation the people and organisations defending these rights face in Azerbaijan.
“We hope that the leaders of the countries participating in the European Games will take advantage of the opportunity to denounce the human rights situation in Azerbaijan. That is why we are asking them officially to condition their participation in the opening ceremony on the release of all imprisoned human rights defenders,” stated Souhayr Belhassen, FIDH Honorary President and head of the delegation to Baku in January 2015. “As relations with Russia sour, Azerbaijan is becoming the cornerstone of the alternative energy road map, but this should not change anything. The international community, and especially the European countries, must be firm,” she added.
In Azerbaijan, the adoption of increasingly repressive policies is also a reflection of events that have taken place on the international stage and at the borders of Azerbaijan. The Azeri government considers the Arab Spring, the large demonstrations in Russia and Turkey, the events in Ukraine, and the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region to be “threats” to national stability.
Before cracking down on NGOs and their leaders in 2014, several laws were amended to restrict the activities of civil society. New laws were adopted that increased the administrative requirements and imposed more frequent inspections and stricter reporting requirements. These laws make it de facto impossible for unregistered NGOs to receive and use grants in accordance with the law. The authorities have used these new regulations to prosecute NGO leaders by accusing them of financial irregularities.