Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (Photo: Demotix)
Critical Azerbaijani journalists may have been jailed, beaten, killed, and forced into hiding and exile. Foreign journalists may have been banned from entering the country for the inaugural European Games in the capital Baku. But don’t worry: Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev sure loves press freedom — at least according to his tweets.
1) HUNDREDS, you hear!
All freedoms are guaranteed in Azerbaijan. There are hundreds of press organs in Azerbaijan.
Khadija Ismayilova, one of Azerbaijan’s most celebrated investigative journalists, today had her appeal over a criminal libel conviction postponed indefinitely.
In February Ismayilova was fined 2,500 manat (£1,500) for defamation of former opposition leader Elman Hasanov. The decision to postpone her appeal comes as she enters her six month in pretrial detention over a number of separate charges, dismissed as spurious and trumped up by international human rights organisations.
“The continued judicial harassment of Khadija Ismayilova by Azerbaijani authorities is cruel and unjust,” said Index CEO Jodie Ginsberg. “As Azerbaijan prepares to host this summer’s inaugural European Games, it is worth remembering that the treatment of Ismayilova flies in the face of the principles of press freedom and human dignity enshrined in the Olympic Charter.”
Ismayilova was arrested on 5 December on charges of inciting suicide and given two months in pretrial detention, which has since been extended twice, last in early March. The initial charge has in recent weeks been further discredited by the backtracking of the accuser, Tural Mustafayev.
In April Mustafayev said in a radio interview that he no longer stands by the letter he wrote in November 2014, accusing Ismayilova of inciting him to suicide, and that he had written to the head public prosecutor to retract his complaint. He says he had first tried in December to withdraw the complaint. Then in May, he accused the city prosecutor’s office in Baku of using his suicide attempt as an opportunity to target Ismayilova.
“I was forced to write the letter. They blackmailed me. They said they will release secret camera recordings of my apartment if I didn’t comply,” he said in a video posted online, reports Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Ismayilova was handed down further charges following her arrest. According to her lawyer, she also stands accused of embezzlement, illegal business, tax evasion and abuse of power. Together, the charges carry a possible sentence of 12 years.
Ismayilova has on a number of occasions taken on President Ilham Aliyev and those close to him through her reporting, and has faced harassment and smear campaigns directly linked to her work. Among other things, ahead of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, she uncovered how the Aliyev family profited from the building of the Baku concert hall where the final was to be hosted.
“Khadija Ismayilova knows no fear. Again and again she has unearthed and exposed stories that have cast a harsh light on widespread corruption and self-dealing at the highest levels of the Azeri government,” said PEN Executive Director Suzanne Nossel.
From top left: Arif Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, Leyla Yunus, Khadija Ismayilova, Intigam Aliyev and Anar Mammadli – some of the government critics jailed on trumped up charges in Azerbaijan
For the first time since the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, the oil-rich, rights-poor nation of Azerbaijan is drawing widespread international attention. This June, the country is poised to host the inaugural European Games, which will bring an estimated 6,000 athletes from 50 countries to the capital city of Baku to compete in 20 sports.
Ahead of the games, the Azerbaijani regime has spent a great deal of time and money to promote a positive image abroad. At home, however, it is engaged in a brutal human rights crackdown. This has particularly intensified over the past year, as the authorities have worked aggressively to silence all forms of criticism and dissent.
Dozens of democracy activists are now in prison, including celebrated investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova who was given this year’s PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, and Leyla Yunus, one of the country’s most prominent human rights defenders. They, and many others, have been jailed on spurious charges, with some facing prison sentences of up to 12 years. Meanwhile, press freedom campaigner Emin Huseynov is trapped in the Swiss embassy in Baku, facing arrest if he leaves. These individuals have been targeted for their work defending the rights of others and telling the truth about the situation in their country.
So far, the European Olympic Committees has been happy to look the other way, stating that was “not the EOC’s place to challenge or pass judgment on the legal or political processes of a sovereign nation”. Likewise, the event sponsors do not seem bothered: BP stated that “seeking to influence the policies of sovereign governments” was not part of its role. The Sport for Rights campaign hopes, however, that the next prime minister will think twice.
The Sport for Rights campaign’s take on Baku European Games mascots Jeyran and Nar. (Image: Sport for Rights)
As members of the campaign, Article 19, Index on Censorship, and Platform have written to the leaders of the UK’s Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Green parties on the eve of the general election. The campaign urged them to make statements condemning the on-going attacks on human rights and calling for the release of political prisoners in Azerbaijan.
Sport for Rights also called on the party leaders to make their participation in the opening ceremony of the games contingent upon the release of the country’s jailed journalists and human rights defenders. This is not a call for a boycott of the games by athletes or the public, but a request for the next prime minister not to miss a key opportunity to take an important stand.
In the face of growing repression in Azerbaijan, the response from the British government has so far been weak and sporadic. Statements are occasionally made; the most recent expressed that the UK was “dismayed” by the sentencing of human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, but stopped short of calling for his release, as did the previous statement conveying that the UK was “deeply troubled” by the sentencing of human rights defender Rasul Jafarov. But beyond statements, little else has been done — at least in the public eye.
For a country so intent on promoting its image as a modern, glamorous, international player, key political figures taking a public stand on human rights issues would have a real chance of impacting positive, democratic change. The European Games presents a timely opportunity for the next prime minister to do just that, sending the clear signal that human rights are important in the bilateral relationship.
Conversely, attendance by the prime minister at the opening ceremony of the games in the current climate, without securing the release of the jailed journalists and human rights defenders, would only serve to effectively endorse an increasingly authoritarian regime. In helping to whitewash Azerbaijan’s ever-worsening image, the UK would only end up tarnishing its own.
Editorial cartoon on the Baku European Games From Meydan TV (Image: Meydan TV)
In six weeks, the inaugural European Olympic Committee (EOC)-backed European Games will start in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku. Meanwhile, concerns about the human rights situation in the country are mounting. The latest chapter in the ongoing crackdown on government critics saw pro-democracy activist Rasul Jafarov and human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev sentenced to 6.5 and 7.5 years in prison, respectively.
Against this backdrop, Index on Censorship, Human Rights Watch and Article 19 on 28 April hosted Give Human Rights a Sporting Chance in Azerbaijan at the Frontline Club in London. The event addressed the question of how journalists can effectively cover the games given the full scope of social and political issues in Azerbaijan.
From left: Emin Milli, Rebecca Vincent and Giorgi Gogia speaking speaking on the crackdown on government critics in Azerbaijan ahead of this summer’s Baku European Games (Photo: Index on Censorship)
On the panel were Emin Milli, a former political prisoner in Azerbaijan, now director of Meydan TV; Rebecca Vincent, coordinator of the Sport for Rights campaign; and Giorgi Gogia, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on Azerbaijan who was recently denied entry into the country. These were some of their key points:
1) Azerbaijan’s human rights community has been all but wiped out over the past year