Azerbaijan must stop crackdown on freedom of expression


Qiyas Ibrahimov and Bayram Mammadov were arrested after spray painting graffiti on a monument to Heydar Aliyev in Baku.

Qiyas Ibrahimov and Bayram Mammadov were arrested after spray painting graffiti on a monument to Heydar Aliyev in Baku.

The government of Azerbaijan is carrying out a multi-pronged attack on freedom of expression, including introducing harsh penalties for critical speech online, imprisoning young activists for nothing more than graffiti, blocking access to websites of independent media, and harassing and violating the rights of journalists and activists. The undersigned organisations call upon the Azerbaijani authorities to reverse this alarming trend and respect basic human rights and freedoms, as well as for international partners to ensure Azerbaijan honours its treaty commitments as a state party to the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Earlier this year, two young activists from the N!DA youth movement, Bayram Mammadov and Qiyas Ibrahimov, were arrested after spraypainting graffiti on a monument to Heydar Aliyev in Baku. They were arrested on spurious drug charges and allegedly tortured repeatedly in police custody. Ibrahimov was recently sentenced to ten years imprisonment in what the head of the country’s press freedom watchdog Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety Emin Huseynov rightfully called, “a prime example of travesty of justice in Azerbaijan.”. Mammadov, whose trial is underway, will most likely face the same fate as last Friday the prosecution requested a 10 years and 6 months imprisonment for him.

In Sumqayit, the journalist Ikram Rahimov and a private citizen Rahman Novruzov were sentenced to a year in prison for libel after reporting on bribery and tax evasion by local authorities. In striking similarity to the N!DA case, Rahimov alleges he was tortured for three days by local police after refusing to apologise to the local authorities whose criminal activity he had uncovered. Meanwhile in Jalilabad region, the journalist Afgan Sadigov is set to begin trial for “infliction of a minor harm to heath” after an altercation with a local woman with a history of getting into physical confrontations with citizens who anger regional authorities through dissent or critical reporting. Sadigov faces up to five years in prison.

“The arbitrary persecution of Azerbaijani journalists is disturbing, and it is vital that the state protect its citizens’ rights to expression and freedom from torture and arbitrary detention,” said Robert Hårdh, Director of Civil Rights Defenders, “these cases represent a serious deterioration in the rule of law in the country, and it is vital that steps be taken to remedy the situation.”

Independent journalists who stay out of jail are also having a hard time reaching their audience, as the websites of the local affiliates of RFE/RL and Voice of America have reportedly been blocked .

Finally, on 30 November parliament passed laws criminalising “online defamation or derogation of honor and dignity” of President Ilham Aliyev. Violators face fines up to 1000 AZN (€537) or two years in prison, or 1500 AZN (€805) or a year in prison if they do so using “fake profiles or nicknames.” As online defamation is already criminalised in Azerbaijan, this amounts primarily to another warning that dissent, in any form, will be harshly punished.

‘The new law is a blatant attempt to clamp down on the only remaining space for Azerbaijani people to freely express themselves in a country where traditional media have been silenced via legal means and harassment’, said Gulnara Akhundova, Head of Department at International Media Support.

The undersigned organisations call on the Azerbaijani authorities to cease the politically-motivated prosecution and torture of journalists, to repeal the new laws further criminalising dissent and free speech, to vacate the conviction of Qiyas Ibrahimov and cease the persecution of Bayram Mammadov, and finally the public unfettered access to independent sources of news and opinion. Furthermore, we call on Azerbaijan’s international partners to use their leverage, both bilaterally and through multilateral institutions, to hold Azerbaijan accountable to its international commitments, and the board of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative to take the aforementioned violations of basic human rights into consideration when deciding on Azerbaijan’s continued membership.

CEE Bankwatch Network
Civil Rights Defenders
European Federation of Journalists
Freedom Now
Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights
Human Rights House Foundation
Index on Censorship
Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety
International Media Support
International Partnership for Human Rights
Netherlands Helsinki Committee
Norwegian Helsinki Committee
PEN America
PEN International
People in Need
Reporters Without Borders
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1481189397931-57791a34-3950-3″ taxonomies=”7145″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Azerbaijani journalist appeals to Christiane Amanpour to help jailed colleagues

Azerbaijani journalist Idrak Abbasov’s story bears all the hallmarks of the typical forms of pressure used by an increasingly intolerant regime to silence its critics. Abbasov became a target for providing a rare critical voice in a media climate dominated by the state. As a result, Abbasov and his family faced years of pressure, ranging from harassment and threats to physical attacks. Nonetheless, he persisted in his efforts to tell the truth about the situation in his country.

In April 2012, just weeks after winning an Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award, Abbasov was brutally beaten by employees of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) whilst filming them demolishing houses in his village. As a result of the attack, he was hospitalised and sustained serious injuries, including broken ribs, damage to his internal organs, and injuries to his eyes. No one was ever prosecuted, and SOCAR blamed Abbasov for instigating the attack.

After the attack, the pressure continued to mount against Abbasov and his family – even his young children. Eventually, they were forced to flee the country for safety, like many other journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists, who are forming an ever-growing community of exiles.

Abbasov continues speaking out even now, drawing international attention to the situation in Azerbaijan, and trying to help his colleagues who have been jailed or otherwise targeted. Now, in the midst of an unprecedented crackdown in the country, he has written a letter to Christiane Amanpour in her new capacity as the UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Freedom of Expression and Journalist Safety.

In his letter, on behalf of the Sport for Rights campaign, Abbasov detailed the unprecedented human rights crackdown taking place in Azerbaijan, in particular the cases of jailed journalist Khadija Ismayilova, and human rights defender Emin Huseynov, who has been trapped at the Swiss Embassy in Baku since August 2014, facing arrest if he attempts to leave. Abbasov urged Amanpour to make a statement condemning the crackdown and calling for the release of the country’s jailed journalists and human rights defenders.

Abbasov also called on Amanpour to take steps to hold UNESCO responsible for its freedom of expression mandate with respect to Azerbaijan, and to undertake a fact-finding mission to the country. He noted that a visit by Amanpour would be timely in the aftermath of the inaugural European Games – which will take place in Baku from 12-28 June – in light of potential acts of reprisal against Azerbaijanis who speak out in the run-up to the Games.

The Sport for Rights campaign hopes that Amanpour will respond, and take action to address the serious freedom of expression violations in the country, before the situation becomes even worse. In particular, Amanpour could be a useful intermediary with Azerbaijani First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, herself a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador.

In the meantime, it is journalists like Idrak Abbasov and Khadija Ismayilova, and human rights defenders like Emin Huseynov, who will continue paying the price for the international community’s silence on the widespread repression being carried out by the Azerbaijani regime. They at least deserve a sporting chance.

Oslo, Norway
14 May 2015

Dear Ms Amanpour,

I am writing to you as the UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Freedom of Expression and Journalist Safety. Congratulations on your appointment! You may remember me from the Rory Peck Awards in 2013, where I received the Martin Adler Award for my freelance journalism in Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, the situation in Azerbaijan has drastically deteriorated since our meeting in London, and my family and I have been forced to leave the country for safety.

Now, I am writing to you with some requests from the Sport for Rights campaign, a coalition of international organisations working to promote human rights in Azerbaijan in the context of the inaugural European Games, which will take place in Baku this June. In the run-up to the Games, the Azerbaijani authorities have engaged in an unprecedented crackdown to silence all criticism and dissent.

As a result, eight journalists are now behind bars on spurious charges. One of them is prominent investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, whom you met when she received an award from the International Women’s Media Foundation in 2012. Khadija is now in detention, facing serious jail time on trumped-up charges of embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, abuse of power, and inciting someone to attempt suicide. Khadija has been targeted for her fearless reporting, much of which focused on corruption of Azerbaijan’s ruling elite, including President Aliyev and his family.

Five human rights defenders are also in jail on spurious charges, all strong advocates of freedom of expression. Another human rights defender, Emin Huseynov, remains trapped in the Swiss embassy in Baku, facing arrest on spurious charges of illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power. Emin has been targeted for his work as director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, Azerbaijan’s leading freedom of expression advocacy organization. Emin has long been at the forefront of promoting freedom of expression and free media. He is a tireless defender of free speech, not only in his native Azerbaijan but also throughout the former Soviet Union and beyond.

Besides arrests, the authorities have stepped up other forms of pressure on journalists. Violence against journalists remains a serious problem, with complete impunity for their attackers. Harassment, threats, and intimidation are an everyday reality for critical journalists. A growing number of journalists, like me, have been forced to leave the country for safety.

In light of these and other serious problems, the Sport for Rights campaign has three requests for you. Firstly, we urge you to make an immediate statement condemning the ongoing human rights crackdown in Azerbaijan and calling for the release of the jailed journalists and human rights defenders. We have enclosed a list of their names and case details, and can provide further information as needed.

Secondly, we ask that you take steps to hold UNESCO responsible for its freedom of expression mandate with respect to Azerbaijan. Despite the alarming freedom of expression situation in the country, Azerbaijan has received nothing but praise from UNESCO. Director-General Irina Bokova has consistently failed to mention freedom of expression in her public remarks related to Azerbaijan.

Finally, we encourage you to undertake a mission to Azerbaijan to investigate the situation in the country, visit our jailed colleagues, and raise these serious issues directly with the authorities, including First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, who is herself a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. This would be particularly helpful in the aftermath of the European Games, as we are worried about possible acts of retribution towards our few remaining brave colleagues in the country, as has been the case after past international events.

Thank you for considering our requests, and as ever, for your support for freedom of expression. I would greatly appreciate anything you could do to help improve the situation in my country before it gets any worse.

Sincerely yours,
Idrak Abbasov

Rasul Jafarov’s conviction: Latest human rights violation in Azerbaijan

(Photo: National Endowment for Democracy)

(Photo: National Endowment for Democracy)

The Sport for Rights coalition resolutely condemns yesterday’s sentencing of Rasul Jafarov, a prominent Azerbaijani human rights defender, to 6.5 years in prison on politically motivated charges. The coalition calls for his immediate release.

“This is just the latest example of the brutal crackdown on civil society by the host government of the forthcoming European Games,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of Article 19. “This ridiculous sentence is a punishment for Jafarov’s human rights activism. The authoritarian regime in Baku are scared of the attention Jafarov would bring during the high profile sport events they are proudly hosting – the European Games in June this year and the Formula One Grand Prix in 2016”.

The coalition calls for the EU and its Member States to impose targeted sanctions – for instance visa ban– against those members of the regime who systematically abuse fundamental human rights of citizens of Azerbaijan. At the same time, given the unprecedented human rights crisis in Azerbaijan, the coalition calls for the European Olympic Committee to establish a working group to examine specific cases of right abuses that violates the spirit and letter of the Olympic Charter and the atmosphere of the first European Games.

“A robust response from the European Olympic Committee is required, together with sanctions from the European Union and United States. This is the only way to bring about the release of Rasul Jafarov and other political prisoners, including prominent human rights defenders Leyla Yunus, Emin Huseynov, Anar Mammadli, award-winning investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova and well-known politician Ilgar Mammadov” , said Emma Hughes of Platform London.

“The Baku games should not be used as a means to blind the wider world to the appalling treatment being meted out to journalists and activists in Azerbaijan. The international community must unite in condemning the Azerbaijani government and in calling for the immediate release of Rasul Jafarov and his compatriots.”, Index on Censorship CEO Jodie Ginsberg said.

“The authorities of Azerbaijan has now come to an absolute low point of the regressive trend we have seen over the past years. An even lower point will be reached with the expected sentencing of human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev next week. We expect governments, international organisations and corporate businesses that have relations with the Azerbaijani government to hold Azerbaijan accountable and react firmly. Profound actions and sanctions must be taken as a response to Azerbaijan’s severe crackdown on independent civil society and human rights defenders – and to Azerbaijan’s total disrespect of international agreements and responsibilities,” urges Maria Dahle, Executive Director of the Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF).

On 16 April 2015, Rasul Jafarov was sentenced to 6.5 years in prison by the Baku Court of Grave Crimes. He is also prohibited from holding any office for 3 years. He was convicted under Articles 192 (illegal business), 213 (tax evasion) and 308 (abuse of power) of the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan. During the trial, all the prosecution witnesses testified in his favor, and the prosecution failed to prove his guilt.  After the verdict, Jafarov reiterated that the charges against him are politically motivated and fabricated.

Jafarov’s work has focused on violations of the right to freedoms of expression, assembly and association. At the time of his arrest in August 2014, he had collected information on over 100 cases of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. He had also called for the foundation of a new NGO coalition, “Sport for Rights”, to raise awareness on Azerbaijan’s human rights record in the run up to the European Games in Baku.

With his colleagues and allies, Rasul Jafarov has advocated for the dozens of journalists, activists and human rights defenders who are behind bars on illegitimate grounds.  As a result of relentless repression enacted by the Azerbaijani government, key human rights activists and journalists have been jailed, exiled, or forced into hiding.

The next person to be sentenced in Azerbaijan is the human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev. He has filed numerous cases with the European Court of Human Rights and as leader of the Legal Education Centre trained a whole generation of lawyers in Azerbaijan. He was awarded with the Homo Homini Award in 2012. He is charged with the same charges as Rasul Jafarov. The next hearing in his case will be on 21 April 2015 and he might be sentenced the following day with up to 10 years imprisonment.

For example, well-known Azerbaijani human rights defender Emin Huseynov has been in hiding in the Embassy of Switzerland in Baku for almost eight months. He sought shelter at the Embassy in order to avoid imminent arrest on fabricated charges—an act of revenge by the regime in response to his criticism of Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record in the international arena. Emin faces charges under three articles of the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan: articles 308 (abuse of office), 213 (tax evasion) and 192 (illegal business).

Hard-hitting investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova has been thrown into jail on similarly fabricated charges – embezzlement, illegal business, tax evasion, and abuse of power. She has been in pretrial detention since December 5 on a separate charge of inciting a man to commit suicide. As reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a member of the Sport for Rights coalition, Azerbaijan is the leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia with at least eight journalists in prison.

Another prominent critic of the Azerbaijan regime, Leyla Yunus, who was calling for the boycott of the European Games due to Baku’s appalling human rights records, was arrested on 30 July on trumped-up charges of treason and other crimes. Her husband, Arif Yunus, faced travel restrictions until he too was arrested on 5 August, on similar charges.  Leyla, who—has been denied necessary medical attention since her arrest, is currently being held in a detention center in Baku, just a few miles from the arena where the European Games will soon be inaugurated.

The Sport for Rights coalition demands the immediate release of Rasul Jafarov and other human rights defenders and activists in Azerbaijan, and calls for robust sanctions against Azerbaijan unless the government takes concrete steps to halt this crackdown.

Sport for Rights Coalition including:

Article 19

Center for Civil Liberties

Committee to Protect Journalists

Freedom Now

Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights

Human Rights House Foundation

Index on Censorship

International Media Support

International Partnership for Human Rights


Platform London

You Aid Foundation

For more information, contact:

Dominika Bychawska, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights at [email protected]

Gulnara Akhundova, International Media Support at [email protected]

Nina Ognianova, Committee to Protect Journalists at [email protected]

Melody Patry, Index on Censorship at [email protected]

Background to Rasul Jafarov’s case:

Rasul Jafarov is a lawyer and prominent human rights activist based in Azerbaijan. He is the founder and chairman of the Human Rights Club and coordinated the ‘Sing for Democracy Campaign’, which used the publicity surrounding the Eurovision Song Contest 2012 in Baku to shed light on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan. In October 2014, Rasul Jafarov, together with other prominent Azerbaijani human rights activists, was awarded the Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. In the same year, he was nominated for the Human Rights Tulip Award, an accolade presented by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs to courageous human rights defenders who promote and support human rights in innovative ways.

Rasul Jafarov was arrested on 2 August 2014 and subsequently charged with illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion and abuse of office. On 12 December 2014, additional charges were brought against him, including embezzlement and forgery. At a hearing on 9 April 2015, the prosecutor recommended a prison sentence of 9 years.

An analysis of trial procedures conducted by the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR) and the Netherlands Helsinki Committee (NHC) raises serious doubts whether the defendant’s fundamental right to a fair trialhas been adequately protected.During the initial stage of the trial, the accused and his lawyers already encountered problems in accessing investigation materials. During the first two hearings, Jafarov was brought into court in handcuffs and kept in a metal cage, which hindered communication with his lawyers. On one occasion, guards seated next to the accused during the hearings obstructed communication with his lawyers, in breach of the guaranteed secrecy of such communication. During the trial, Jafarov stated that he had faced ill-treatment—for example, he was deliberately woken up very early on the days of his trial, and kept waiting for several hours in a special (is this the right word? Small?) room. He was transported to the hearings in an overcrowded vehicle.

The prosecution’s arguments concerning the charges were vague. During the trial, the prosecution neither elaborated upon nor justified the charges, in particularly the charges of abuse of office and service forgery, as no evidence of significant damage to the interests of physical or legal persons or national or societal interests (according to Articles 308.2 and 313 of the Criminal Code) was presented. The lack of precision in regard to the charges and the lack of respect for Jafarov’s right to understand and respond to accusation has raised another challenge to procedural fairness.

During the trial, the Court heard more than a dozen witnesses. Although the prosecution considered some of these individuals as victims, the witnesses stated that they did not feel victimized by the defendant and have no claims against him. According to their testimonies, Jafarov paid them regularly and all financial documentation was completed in conformity with Azerbaijani law.  The defence lawyers filed unsuccessful motions to revoke the “victim status” of most of the witnesses. No clear justification for the rejection of this motion was provided. Moreover, during questioning of the alleged victims, the judge commented on their responses and guided their answers. Some of the alleged victims brought documents confirming that they had been paid for their work, but the judge refused to look at this crucial evidence.

The defence requested that the Court conduct an independent expert analysis of the document presented by the prosecution as a proof of alleged forgery by the accused. This motion was rejected by the Court, and so the defence presented the results of forensic analysis stating that the signatures on financial documents and invoices were authentic. Although the court accepted the expert analysis as evidence, it rejected the motion to hear the forensic expert.

The defence also submitted letters from 20 donor organizations stating that all grant funds were spent as intended. In addition, the court was presented with five CDs containing supporting documents. The prosecution opposed the presentation of these documents, arguing that they could be forged. However, the court accepted the defence’s submission.

Azerbaijan’s 12 months of paralysing attacks on civil society

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.