FIDH: European governments must take action to release the political prisoners in Azerbaijan
“In the current context, the participation of European government representatives in the opening ceremony will be an affront to all activists detained in Azerbaijan and to the universal values they defend while risking their freedom and safety,” declared Karim Lahidji, FIDH President.
FIDH denounces the unprecedented crackdown on Azerbaijani civil society perpetrated by the authorities. Our organisation recalls that most of the leaders of independent NGOs have been arrested in the past year, ahead of the Baku Games. Their lawyers are harassed and imprisoned with the aim of denying activists their right to legal defence. The government has put in place new policies severely restricting citizens’ rights. In particular, it has passed legislation that renders the lawful registration and functioning of independent organisations virtually impossible. Bank accounts of independent NGOs have been frozen and foreign funding declared unlawful unless sanctioned by the government. Given the regime’s intent to use the European Games to improve the country’s image, the Games may well exacerbate the deteriorating human rights situation in the country. As the host of this large international event, the regime has become more intolerant of criticism than ever before.
In April 2015, two months ahead of the Games, two prominent human rights defenders, Rasul Jafarov and Intigam Aliyev, were condemned to 6.5 and 7.5 years in prison, respectively, for their work defending such basic rights as freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to a fair trial. A number of other human rights defenders were put behind bars in 2014, including Leyla and Arif Yunus, known for their defence of minority rights and their work towards reconciliation between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Independent journalists Khadija Ismailova, Rauf Mirqadirov and Seymur Haziyev are also in detention, while the Chairman of an election observation NGO, Anar Mammadli, and defender of rights for the Talysh minority, Hilal Mammadov, are serving long prison sentences. In August 2014, Emin Huseynov was forced to take refuge in the Swiss Embassy to avoid a trial on bogus charges that seek to penalize him for his defense of journalists’ rights.
The authorities are pursuing a ferocious crackdown against the political opposition. Opposition parties are denied official registration and their members are regularly thrown in prison. In 2014, opposition politicians Ilgar Mammadov and Tofig Yagublu were sentenced to seven and five years in prison, respectively, for criticizing the government. Recently, two members of the opposition Popular Front Party, Murad Adilov (sentenced on 14 May 2015) and Elvin Abdullayev (sentenced on 1 June 2015) were condemned to six years in prison each on politically motivated charges.
The legislative obstacles that the Azerbaijani authorities have put in place in order to outlaw any independent civil society activity, in addition to the judicial harassment of activists and their lawyers and the detainment of all critical voices violate the word and spirit of the Olympic Charter. The Azerbaijani authorities have bestowed great importance on the upcoming European Games, as they are seen as a way to give the country a more prestigious image in the international arena. The Games therefore provide an ideal opportunity for European governments to bring about a positive change in the human rights situation in Azerbaijan. To this end, FIDH urges European governments to make their presence at the opening ceremony of the Games contingent upon the release of all detained civil society activists.