Azerbaijan’s 12 months of paralysing attacks on civil society
Twelve months ago Rebecca Vincent and Rasul Jafarov wrote for Index on Censorship magazine on a crackdown on photojournalists in Azerbaijan. A year later Vincent writes about Jafarov’s imprisonment, and the events of 2014
9 Dec 2014
Twelve months ago Rebecca Vincent and Rasul Jafarov wrote for Index on Censorship magazine on a crackdown on photojournalists in Azerbaijan. A year later Jafarov is in prison awaiting trial, and Vincent writes about the spiralling threats towards anyone who speaks out about democracy
Campaigners outside the Baku court where members of N!DA were being sentenced (Photo: © Jahangir Yusif)

Campaigners outside the Baku court where members of N!DA were being sentenced (Photo: © Jahangir Yusif)

Azerbaijani activists Rasul Jafarov and Rebecca Vincent wrote an article for Index on Censorship magazine in December 2013 covering attacks on photojournalists, featured alongside a photo essay by photographers. A year later, the magazine asked Vincent to return to the issue, and cover how the past year has meant increasing risks for photographers, journalists and activists. One of the original photographers Jahangir Yusif returns to Index to illustrate the story. Jafarov is currently detained by the government, awaiting trial. Below, is a preview of the article to be featured in the next issue of the magazine.

Azerbaijani human rights defender Rasul Jafarov and I co-authored a piece for  Index on Censorship magazine on behalf of the Art for Democracy campaign, focusing on the pressure faced by Azerbaijani photographers who covered risky topics such as corruption and human rights abuses. The piece ran alongside a photo story by some of the country’s most talented independent photographers.

That piece was typical of the work of the Art for Democracy campaign, which used all forms of artistic expression to promote democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan. Now, a year later, the human rights situation in Azerbaijan has worsened immeasurably. Rasul Jafarov was arrested and remains in detention, facing a serious jail sentence on fabricated and politically motivated charges, alongside a number of other prominent human rights defenders. Art for Democracy’s activities have been effectively suspended, as well as the operations of nearly all of the remaining human rights NGOs in the country.

Indeed, the past year has seen the most unprecedented of all human rights crackdowns to date in Azerbaijan, as the authorities work aggressively to silence the country’s few remaining voices. As a result, there are currently more than 90 reported political prisoners in Azerbaijan, including some of the country’s leading human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, and bloggers.

Police and activists clash during the run-up to the presidential election (Photo: © Jahangir Yusif)

Police and activists clash during the run-up to the presidential election (Photo: © Jahangir Yusif)

Rasul Jafarov’s case bears all the hallmarks of the pressure exerted on human rights defenders in Azerbaijan. He had been on the authorities’ radar for years, with his earlier work for the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety and, since December 2010, in his role as the founder and Chairman of the Human Rights Club. Perhaps most notably, Jafarov co-ordinated the Sing for Democracy campaign, which used the May 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, held in the capital Baku, as a platform to expose on-going human rights violations in the country and promote democratic change. He was the driving force behind the creation of the Art for Democracy campaign.

Alongside Art for Democracy’s activities, Jafarov worked to expose the situation of political prisoners. On the eve of the October 2013 presidential election the Human Rights Club released a list Jafarov had compiled of political prisoners, revealing a shocking 144 cases. The election itself was marred by widespread electoral fraud and saw incumbent President Ilham Aliyev re-elected for a third term in office.

In 2014, Jafarov continued working on the list and coordinating efforts among NGOs to achieve consensus and develop a joint version of the list, which would prove crucial to international advocacy efforts. Along with some of the other human rights defenders who have since been targeted, Jafarov repeatedly raised the issue at the Council of Europe, and advocated the appointment of a new special rapporteur to take up the work of a previous rapporteur whose efforts were defeated by lobbying from the Azerbaijani government. Jafarov also announced plans to launch a new campaign, Sports for Rights, ahead of the first European Games, which are due to be held in Baku in June 2015.

As a result of these activities, Jafarov faced a number of pressures from the authorities, but he persevered. He was aware of the risks, but also remained hopeful that the situation in his country would improve. He was dedicated to his work defending the rights of others and attempting to hold his government to account. Indeed he remains passionately committed to these aims even now, in detention.

After having his bank account frozen and being prevented from travelling outside of the country, Jafarov was arrested on 2 August and charged with illegal entrepreneurship, abuse of office, and tax evasion. The fabricated and politically motivated charges were similar to those used against other prominent human rights defenders. Some of the charges were linked to the fact that the Human Rights Club remained unregistered, despite the fact that Jafarov had been attempting to register the NGO with the state for more than three years, an issue pending consideration by the European Court of Human Rights. Jafarov remains held at the Kurdekhani detention centre, awaiting trial.

Jafarov is only one of many prominent human rights defenders to have been targeted in Azerbaijan in recent months. On 26 May, the chairman of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre Anar Mammadli, was sentenced to five and a half years in jail, and his colleague Bashir Suleymanli to three and a half years on charges including illegal entrepreneurship, abuse of office, and tax evasion. Elnur Mammadov of the International Cooperation of Volunteers’ Union was also sentenced to two years on probation.

Protestors campaign for the release of imprisoned activists (Photo: © Jahangir Yusif)

Protesters campaign for the release of imprisoned activists (Photo: © Jahangir Yusif)

On 30 July, the head of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, Leyla Yunus, was arrested on politically motivated charges of treason, fraud, forgery, tax evasion, and abuse of office. Her husband, an activist in his own right, Arif Yunus, was arrested on 5 August on charges of treason and fraud. On 8 August, the head of the Legal Education Society Intigam Aliyev was arrested on similar politically motivated charges: illegal entrepreneurship, abuse of office, and tax evasion. There are now a total of nine human rights defenders behind bars in Azerbaijan. In addition, the whereabouts of the director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety Emin Huseynov have been unknown since 8 August, the day his organisation’s office was searched and sealed shut by police.

Parallel to these arrests, the authorities have stepped up other forms of pressure against both local and foreign NGOs, making it nearly impossible for organisations working on issues related to human rights and democracy to continue operating in the country. This has resulted in the closure or suspension of activities of many of the remaining human rights NGOs in the country. Parliament continues to tighten legislation related to the operations and financing of NGOs, cutting off vital sources of funding for independent groups and making it difficult to carry out even routine activities.

At the same time, other violations continue, such as pressure against the few remaining opposition and independent media outlets in the country. Prominent investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova was arrested on 5 December, as government officials and their supporters employed new tactics in their relentless attempts to silence her. Journalists Seymur Khaziyev and Khalid Garayev, both presenters of the Azerbaijan Hour programme, were arrested on 29 August and 29 October respectively, bringing the current total of journalists and bloggers behind bars to 15. The Azadliq newspaper, the country’s main opposition daily newspaper, teeters on the brink of closure, facing serious financial hardship because of excessive fines from civil defamation lawsuits and a number of other pressures from the authorities.

In an ironic twist of fate, in the midst of this unprecedented crackdown, Azerbaijan in May 2014 assumed the chairmanship of Council of Europe, a body whose very purpose is to safeguard human rights and democratic values. Sadly, during Azerbaijan’s chairmanship, the Council of Europe, and, the broader international community, has done little to hold the government to account for its human rights obligations.

Now, with Jafarov and so many of his colleagues behind bars and the organisations they represent effectively paralysed, concrete international support is needed more than ever. Azerbaijan’s few remaining independent voices are under siege and will not be able to hold out much longer.

©Rebecca Vincent

Rebecca Vincent is a human rights activist and former diplomat who writes regularly on human rights issues in Azerbaijan. She served as advocacy director of the Art for Democracy campaign until April 2014

Jahangir Yusif is a photo-journalist whose work was featured in the original article 12 months ago, read the original article here.

Index recently was part of a protest at the Azerbaijani embassy, read more about it here.

This article is from the upcoming winter edition of Index on Censorship magazine. Subscribe to Index on Censorship magazine by Dec 31, 2014 for 25% off a print subscription.

This article was posted on 9 December 2014 and appears in print as Azeri attack in the Winter 2014 Index on Censorship magazine.