Azerbaijani authorities are abusing restrictions imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19 to arrest opposition activists and silence government critics, Human Rights Watch said today.
In recent weeks, the authorities have sentenced at least six activists and a pro-opposition journalist to detention for between 10 and 30 days on spurious charges including breaking lockdown rules or disobeying police orders.
Almost all of those arrested had criticized conditions in government-run quarantine centers or the government’s failure to provide adequate compensation to people struggling financially from the consequences of the pandemic. Among them was a man who left his house to take his child, who has a chronic health condition, to a hospital for daily treatment.
“These arrests fall squarely within a longstanding pattern of political retaliation in Azerbaijan,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should stop using a public health emergency as a pretext to punish legitimate speech.”
Human Rights Watch reviewed court documents and spoke to the family members and lawyers of seven government critics arrested since March 22 on spurious administrative charges of violating the lockdown or disobeying police orders. All but one remain in detention.
Arresting people for violating COVID-19 emergency measures may actually increase disease transmission if the authorities place people in crowded detention facilities where the virus could spread easily, Human Rights Watch said. Both regional monitoring bodies and national groups have criticized conditions in Azerbaijan’s detention facilities for administrative detainees as poor and inappropriate for the length of sentences imposed.
Azerbaijan confirmed its first COVID-19 case on February 28, 2020, and had 1,253 confirmed cases as of April 15. The government has put in place a series of social distancing measures, including a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people, and on nonessential travel to the capital, Baku, and surrounding districts.
“Using imprisonment as a sanction for violating a lockdown is counterproductive and goes against the recent recommendations by United Nations and Council of Europe expert bodies, urging the authorities to make concerted efforts “to resort to alternatives to deprivation of liberty,” the Human Rights Watch said.