Azerbaijan: Renewed human rights crackdown ahead of referendum

18 August 2016. Less than six weeks ahead of a constitutional referendum, Azerbaijani authorities have unleashed a new wave of repression to silence critical voices. The undersigned members of the Sport for Rights coalition condemn this renewed crackdown, and call on officials to take immediate steps to improve the human rights situation in the country, starting with the release of political prisoners.

On 12 August, prominent Azerbaijani economist and executive secretary of the opposition Republican Alternative (REAL) movement Natig Jafarli was arrested on charges of illegal entrepreneurship and abuse of power, and sentenced to four months of pre-trial detention. On 17 August, the Court of Appeals rejected the appeal for his release. According to Sport for Rights member the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, Jafarli has been locked up for his “peaceful criticism” of the country’s upcoming constitutional referendum. The charges against Jafarli stem from a criminal case the Prosecutor General’s Office launched against a group of NGOs in 2014. If convicted, Jafarli may face up to eight years of imprisonment.


Sport for Rights considers charges against activists to be politically motivated.


On 13 August, NIDA civic movement activist Elgiz Gahraman was arrested, held incommunicado over the weekend, charged on 15 August with drug possession, and sentenced to four months’ pre-trial detention. Also on 15 August, REAL movement youth activists Elshan Gasimov and Togrul Ismayilov were arrested and sentenced to seven days of administrative detention each on charges of resisting police. Authorities also harassed civic activist and former political prisoner Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, calling him in for questioning and then subjecting him to a court hearing that dragged out over three days, before fining him 100 AZN on charges of “minor hooliganism”.

Sport for Rights considers the charges against Jafarli, Gahraman, and the other activists to be politically motivated, and calls for their immediate and unconditional release, along with the release of all of Azerbaijan’s dozens of political prisoners – including opposition REAL movement leader Ilgar Mammadov, whose release has been ordered by the European Court of Human Rights; journalist Seymur Hezi; and youth activists Ilkin Rustemzade, Giyas Ibrahimov, and Bayram Mammadov.

This spate of repression takes place in the aftermath of Azerbaijan’s latest mega event, the Formula One European Grand Prix, held in Baku in June. It also takes place on the eve of a constitutional referendum set for 26 September, which will decide a series of problematic amendments aimed at further consolidating power in Azerbaijan’s already dominant presidency. The Azerbaijani government’s proposal of these amendments immediately followed July’s coup attempt in Turkey.

Events in Turkey have played a further role in Azerbaijan’s renewed crackdown. On 15 August, the Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s Office announced it had opened a criminal case against supporters of the Turkish Gulen movement “to prevent illegal actions on the territory of Azerbaijan”. Detained NIDA civic movement activist Elgiz Gahraman was linked to the Gulen movement in an article in the pro-governmental press that also targeted figures of the opposition Popular Front Party and the satellite Azerbaycan Saatı (“Azerbaijan Hour”) programme, signalling possible further pressure to come. On 17 August, the Caucasus University in Baku announced it had fired 50 Turkish instructors for alleged links with the Gulen movement.

Broadcast of Azerbaijan Saatı was stopped on 27 July when Turkish television station Barış TV, which carried the programme, was among the media outlets shut down by a presidential decree in Turkey, alleging their connection to the Gulen movement. The transmission of another rare critical news source on developments in Azerbaijan, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s programme Azadlıq (“Freedom”) A-LIVE, was halted without explanation by Türksat satellite on 8 August. In Azerbaijan, private national television station ANS TV remains off the air following a court order on 29 July to revoke the station’s license in connection with an interview it had planned to broadcast with Fethullah Gulen.

All of this occurs against the backdrop of a dire overall human rights situation in Azerbaijan. The media remains completely dominated by the state, and critical journalists operate in a climate of fear. Excessive restrictions remain on civil society, severely hindering the ability of independent NGOs to operate. Travel bans continue to be used against journalists, activists, and politicians – including journalists Khadija Ismayilova, whose appeal to lift her travel ban was denied on 15 August, and Elchin Mammad, who was detained when trying to cross the Azerbaijani border on 9 August.

The Sport for Rights coalition calls for the Azerbaijani authorities to immediately cease these gross and systemic violations and take steps to improve the human rights situation in the country, starting with the immediate and unconditional release of political prisoners held for their peaceful political activities or exercise of their right to freedom of expression. Sport for Rights further calls for sustained attention to Azerbaijan by the international community, and concrete action to hold the Azerbaijani government accountable for its human rights obligations.

Supporting organisations:

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Civil Rights Defenders
Freedom House
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)

Index on Censorship’s Azerbaijan campaign
Azerbaijan’s long assault on media freedom

Azerbaijan: Index on Censorship calls for Khadija Ismayilova’s convictions to be quashed

Khadija Ismayilova is one of the government critics jailed ahead of the 2015 Baku European Games.

Index on Censorship calls for all Khadija Ismayilova’s convictions to be quashed following the reduction in her jail sentence to a three-and-a-half-year suspended term.

Ismayilova, an award-winning journalist, was imprisoned since December 2014 and sentenced in September 2015 to seven-and-a-half years in prison on trumped-up charges.

“Khadija is a courageous journalist who speaks truth to power despite relentless harassment and pressure,” said Index on Censorship’s senior advocacy officer Melody Patry. She added: “Her imprisonment was unjust and the Supreme Court should have gone further and overturned the conviction rather than merely reducing the sentence.”

Officially charged with large-scale misappropriation and embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion and abuse of official duties, the real reason for Ismayilova’s imprisonment is her investigative journalism and advocacy.

Although Ismayilova is out of jail, her conviction still stands and carries many restrictions on her freedoms. She will have to report herself to the police every month and won’t be able to leave the country for five years without a permission from state institutions, Azadliq Radiosu reports.

“The struggle is not over for Khadija Ismayilova, and it is certainly not over for the remaining political prisoners in Azerbaijan,” Index’s CEO Jodie Ginsberg said. “Substantial change and reform are needed so that the authorities cannot jail and free their critics as they please.”

Index on Censorship will take part in the Sport for Rights global action to mark Ismayilova’s 40th birthday on Friday 27 May. Gatherings across the globe will go ahead, and participants will celebrate Ismayilova’s release and call for the release of the country’s dozens of remaining political prisoners.

Azerbaijan: Journalist Khadija Ismayilova released from prison

Who is investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova?

Azerbaijan: Journalist Khadija Ismayilova released from prison

Khadija Ismayilova

Khadija Ismayilova

Azerbaijan’s Supreme Court has ordered the release of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova after an international campaign to free her and just two days before international protests against her detention were due to take place.

Khadija, who turns 40 on Friday, had previously been sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison on trumped-up financial charges in September 2015, having been detained since December 2014. The supreme court has just announced that her sentence has been reduced to a suspended three-year sentence. She will be subject to a travel ban and other restrictions.

“We are delighted that Khadija Ismayilova has been released from prison,” said Index’s senior advocacy officer Melody Patry. “She shouldn’t have spent a day in jail. The charges against her were spurious and we call for her full acquittal. We also reiterate our calls for Azerbaijan to release all political prisoners.”

Ismayilova was jailed in December 2014 on a range of politically motivated charges – initially inciting someone to attempt suicide, and later the charges of which she was eventually convicted: illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of office. The real reason she was targeted, however, was her investigative reporting exposing corruption among Azerbaijan’s ruling elite.

Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia (ECCA) International Media Support team leader Gulnara Akhundova said today: “We are beyond relieved that Khadija Ismayilova has finally been released, but emphasise that she should never have spent a single day in jail. We call for all restrictions on her to be immediately dropped and for her conviction to be overturned.”

Rebecca Vincent of Sports for Rights, which has been campaigning for Ismayilova’s release, said: “We are delighted that Khadija is finally free, after spending 537 days unjustly jailed. On the occasion of her release, we echo Khadija’s call that we should not focus only on her case, but call for the releases of all political prisoners and concrete steps to address the rampant corruption and human rights abuses in Azerbaijan that Khadija has sacrificed so much to expose.”

Sport for Rights has organised a global action to mark Ismayilova’s 40th birthday on Friday 27 May in 40 cities around the world. Gatherings will still go ahead, and participants will celebrate Ismayilova’s release, call for her full acquittal and call for the release of the country’s dozens of remaining political prisoners.

Index on Censorship senior advocacy officer Melody Patry is available for comment at +44 (0)207 963 7290 / [email protected].

Sport for Rights coordinator Rebecca Vincent is available for comment at +44 (0)7583 137751 / [email protected].

Azerbaijan: Free prisoners before Baku Grand Prix race


London, 17 May 2016: The Formula One Group leadership should urge the Azerbaijani government to release unjustly imprisoned activists and journalists ahead of the European Grand Prix in Azerbaijan, said the Sport for Rights coalition today.

Azerbaijan will host its first Formula One European Grand Prix race on 17-19 June 2016 in the capital, Baku. The Azerbaijani government has sought to host a number of high-profile sports and other events in recent years, including the inaugural European Games in 2015, while cracking down on human rights activists and critical journalists, as event organisers stayed silent.

“Formula One leadership has a crucial opportunity to press the Azerbaijani government to make concrete steps to improve its human rights record ahead of the Baku Grand Prix”, said Jane Buchanan, associate director for Europe and Central Asia, at Human Rights Watch. “If it remains silent, Formula One risks condoning the government’s efforts to benefit from the prestige of international events, while silencing domestic critics, without consequences”.

Sport for Rights is a coalition of international human rights groups working to draw attention to the dramatic human rights situation in Azerbaijan. The coalition campaigns for the protection of human rights in Azerbaijan and calls on international sporting organisations to press for better human rights safeguards in countries hosting major sporting events.

In recent years, the government of Azerbaijan has undertaken a systematic crackdown on journalists, media outlets, and independent activists. The authorities have arrested or imprisoned dozens on politically motivated charges, including Azerbaijan’s best-known investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, and opposition politician Ilgar Mammadov. The government has also forced numerous independent groups critical of the government to cease operations.

The Formula One Group has explicitly acknowledged its human rights responsibilities, in a policy that states it is “committed to respecting internationally recognised human rights in its operations globally”.

In a letter to Bernard Ecclestone, Chief Executive of Formula One Group, the groups urge Formula One to speak out publicly against the Azerbaijan government’s crackdown on critics and call for the release of those wrongly imprisoned.
“It’s commendable that Formula One group recognises its human rights responsibilities, but the policy has little meaning unless the leadership insists on respect for fundamental human rights protections in the countries that host the Grand Prix” said Rebecca Vincent, coordinator of the Sport for Rights campaign. “If the Azerbaijani government wants the reputational boost of being a global sporting host, it must also recognise its obligations to allow independent media and activists to speak freely, even if it doesn’t always like the message”.

The Azerbaijani government has taken some positive steps in 2016, including releasing at least 16 activists and journalists imprisoned on politically motivated charges. However, many outstanding, extremely serious concerns remain, and the government continues to harass and detain critics, the Sport for Rights coalition said.

In the letter to Formula One Chief Bernie Ecclestone, the coalition called the Formula One Group to take a number of essential steps, including calling on the Azerbaijani authorities to:

  • Unconditionally release unjustly imprisoned journalists and activists, including Ismayilova and Mammadov, as well as journalist Seymur Hezi and blogger Ilkin Rustemzade;
  • Quash the convictions of all recently released activists and journalists and stop additional prosecutions of independent journalists and activists;
  • Cease unjust interference with the operation of independent organisations;
  • Ensure journalists attending the Baku Grand Prix can operate without interference while covering a range of topics.

The coalition noted that during the 2015 European Games in Baku, the government prevented numerous leading international journalists from covering the Games, without any penalty or consequences from the Games’ organisers.

“Formula One Group has a chance to support the critical voices remaining in Azerbaijan and ensure the Grand Prix doesn’t repeat the human rights failures of the European Games”, said Emin Huseynov, director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety. “By using its unique position, the Formula One group can ensure that the legacy of the Grand Prix in Azerbaijan is not greater repression”.

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Azerbaijan, please visit:

For more information on Sport for Rights, please visit:

For more information, please contact:
For Human Rights Watch, in New York, Jane Buchanan (English, Russian): +1-646-644-4847, or [email protected]. Twitter: @JaneMBuchanan
For Human Rights Watch, in Tbilisi, Giorgi Gogia (English, Georgian, Russian): +995-577-42-12-35 (mobile); or [email protected]. Twitter: @Giorgi_Gogia

For Sport for Rights, in London, Rebecca Vincent (English, Azerbaijani): +44 (0)7583 137751 (mobile); or [email protected]. Twitter: @rebecca_vincent

For the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, in Geneva, Emin Huseynov (English, Azerbaijani, Russian): +41 (0) 788788428 (mobile); or [email protected]. Twitter: @EminAzerbaijan

Bernard Ecclestone
Chief Executive
Formula One Group
6 Princes Gate
London SW7 1QJ

17 May 2016

Dear Mr Ecclestone,

We, the undersigned members of the Sport for Rights coalition, are writing to you in advance of the Baku European Grand Prix in June to provide details on Azerbaijan’s deeply troubling human rights record and steps that we believe Formula One Group can take to ensure its compliance with its human rights responsibilities.

Sport for Rights is a coalition of international non-governmental organisations working together to promote human rights in Azerbaijan. As Azerbaijan hosts and bids to host international sporting events, with the media spotlight, prestige, and reputational boost that those events can bring to a host country, we are consistently calling on international sporting organisations and others to take meaningful action consistent with their human rights responsibilities as well as use the opportunity of sporting events to press for better human rights protections.

In the run-up to the European Grand Prix in Baku, the Azerbaijani authorities have continued with their human rights crackdown to silence critical voices. We urge you to use the European Grand Prix as an opportunity to speak out against the crackdown and call for the release of jailed journalists and activists.

Formula One Group’s Responsibilities
Formula One Group states that it “is committed to respecting internationally recognised human rights in its operations globally”. The policy also states that Formula One Group will take steps to “understand and monitor through our due diligence processes the potential human rights impacts of our activities”, “identify and assess, by conducting due diligence where appropriate, any actual or potential adverse human rights impacts with which we may be involved”, “consider practical responses to any issues raised as a result of our due diligence”, and “engage in meaningful consultation with relevant stakeholders in relation to any issues raised as a result of our due diligence”. Sport for Rights welcomes this explicit acknowledgement and statement of Formula One Group’s human rights responsibilities.

As you will be aware the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (Ruggie Principles) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, issued in 2011 both provide that entities such as Formula One Group bear responsibilities to carry out effective human rights due diligence, to avoid contributing to adverse human rights impacts and to address any that arise.

Grave Human Rights Situation in Azerbaijan
As you may also be aware, in recent years, the government of Azerbaijan has undertaken a dramatic crackdown on journalists, media outlets and civil society leaders and independent organisations. Specifically the authorities have:

  • Arrested or imprisoned dozens of human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers, youth activists, politicians and others on politically motivated charges, prompting others to flee the country or go into hiding.
  • Frozen the bank accounts and sealed the offices of NGO leaders targeted in the crackdown, forcing these NGOs to stop operations function.
  • Launched a spurious, overbroad, two-year criminal investigation implicating foreign donors and dozens of their grantees, forcing the donors to stop their crucial support to independent civil society.
  • Adopted legislative amendments and regulations on non-governmental organisations that severely and groundlessly interfere with organisations’ ability to operate, including by restricting access to international funding.

Recently, the authorities have taken some positive, but limited steps. In March 2016, the authorities pardoned or conditionally released at least 16 human rights defenders, activists, and journalists imprisoned on politically motivated charges. In April 2016, the government also finally allowed leading activist, Leyla Yunus, and her husband, Arif Yunus, to travel abroad for medical treatment. The Yunuses had earlier been released on suspended sentences from prison, where their fragile health conditions had deteriorated precipitously since their arrests on politically motivated charges in 2014, charges levied in retaliation for their activism.

However, many outstanding, extremely serious concerns remain, and the crackdown on independent voices has not ended.

The criminal records of the recently released activists have not been expunged and some continue to face restrictions, including travel bans and frozen bank accounts. Other prominent activists and journalists arrested on politically motivated charges remain behind bars. They include:

  • Khadija Ismayilova, Azerbaijan’s best known investigative journalist;
  • Ilgar Mammadov, opposition REAL movement leader, whose release has been ordered five times by the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, in order to implement the May 2014 European Court of Human Rights ruling on his case;
  • Seymur Hezi, journalist with the opposition daily “Azadliq”;
  • Ilkin Rustemzade, blogger and youth activist

On 30 March 2016, authorities detained 79-year-old writer Akram Aylisli at the Baku airport for 12 hours, questioned him, and prevented him from travelling. Authorities later charged him with violently resisting authorities, and he faces up to three years’ imprisonment if convicted.

On 20 April 2016, the Azerbaijani authorities opened a criminal investigation against Meydan TV, a leading independent online broadcast news outlet, only able to operate out of Germany, with correspondents and other staff based in Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani prosecutor’s office named 15 journalists in the investigation, at least seven of whom remain in the country under travel bans, and face the threat of politically motivated trials and imprisonment.

In addition, the Azerbaijani government has not committed to amending the restrictive legislation regulating NGOs and NGO funding. In December 2015, the Ministry of Justice adopted new regulations granting the ministry nearly uninhibited powers to conduct inspections at non-governmental organisations.

Role of Formula One Group
In light of this deeply troubling human rights situation, we encourage you to use your prominent role within Formula One racing to guarantee a positive legacy from the European Grand Prix in Baku and ensure that the race is not stained by severe violations of press freedom and human rights.

Specifically, in advance of the opening of the Grand Prix in Baku on 17 June 2016, we urge you to:

  • Publicly and privately call for the unconditional release of imprisoned journalists and activists, including Khadija Ismayilova, Ilgar Mammadov, Seymur Hezi, Ilkin Rustemzade and others unjustly imprisoned. Such a call would be particularly meaningful from you personally, as the recognised global leader of Formula One racing;
  • Call on the authorities to quash the convictions of all freed activists, drop the political prosecutions of independent media outlets, organisations, and individuals, unfreeze civil society organisations’ bank accounts, and allow civil society to function without undue legislative or other restrictions on funding or other activities;
  • Urge the authorities to refrain from repression and any further politically motivated arrests and prosecutions of independent journalists and activists;
  • Insist that the authorities guarantee that all international and Azerbaijani journalists and bloggers can operate without interference in advance of and during the European Grand Prix in Baku while covering a range of topics. During the 2015 European Games in Baku, the government interfered with the entry of several leading international journalists, including those accredited to cover the games, without penalty or consequences, sending a very troubling signal that such actions are acceptable for hosts of international sporting events.

In addition, we would welcome more information on and strongly encourage Formula One Group to publicly disclose the responsible parties, timeline, terms, specific actions, indicators, and outcomes of its due diligence procedure undertaken in relation to the European Grand Prix in Baku, including information on consultation with stakeholders, in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights requirements and their call for transparency as an essential element of meaningful due diligence.

Finally, representatives from the Sports for Rights coalition would welcome the opportunity to meet you in the coming weeks to discuss these issues in more detail.


Rebecca Vincent, Coordinator, Sport for Rights campaign
Katie Morris, Head of Europe and Central Asia Programme, ARTICLE 19
Alice Klein, President, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Robert Hårdh, Executive Director, Civil Rights Defenders
Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator, Committee to Protect
Maran Turner, Executive Director, Freedom Now
Mary Lawlor, Executive Director, Front Line Defenders
Danuta Przywara, President of the Board, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights
Hugh Williamson, Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch
Melody Patry, Senior Advocacy Officer, Index on Censorship
Emin Huseynov, Director, Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety
Jesper Højberg, Executive Director, International Media Support
Brigitte Dufour, Director, International Partnership for Human Rights
Petra Havlikova, Project Coordinator of the Women’s Rights Are Human Rights
Programme, NESEHNUTI
Pepijn Gerrits, Executive Director, Netherlands Helsinki Committee
Berit Lindeman, Senior Advisor, Norwegian Helsinki Committee
Karin Karlekar, Director, Free Expression Programs, PEN America
Ann Harrison, Programme Director, Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International
Emma Hughes, Strategy Director, Platform
Ivana Skalova, Head of the East European Program, People in Need
Aleksandra Antonowicz-Cyglicka, Head of Programme, Action for the Global
South, Polish Green Network
Łukasz Biernacki, Managing Director, You Aid Foundation