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Fundamental freedoms under attack in the run-up to Azerbaijan's presidential election

By Rebecca Vincent.

In Azerbaijan, the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly, and association have been under attack for years, as set out in a number of previous articles. But in the months leading up to the country's 9th October presidential election, the Azerbaijani authorities have been engaged in a particularly vicious crackdown on citizens' exercise of these rights, in an apparent campaign to silence all forms of criticism and dissent.

While there are also many other human rights violations taking place in the country, citizens' ability to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association have been severely restricted by a regime that has demonstrated a fundamental unwillingness to allow the expression of opinions and ideas that contrast the official position, or access to and exchange of information that could be used to undermine its power.

The rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association are vital components of democratic society. Respect for and protection of these rights takes on even greater importance during election periods, as all candidates must be able to campaign unfettered, to get their messages out to the population, and to engage in robust public debate on matters of policy. Citizens must be able to access a wide and diverse range of information, to be exposed to a variety of political views, and to make informed decisions in electing their representatives.

Given the extensive nature of the on-going restriction of these rights in Azerbaijan, there is little hope that the upcoming presidential election will meet international standards for democratic elections. Even if there are technical improvements in election-day conduct, the underlying climate has rendered a fair and free competition virtually impossible.

Several of the main human rights concerns in the run-up to Azerbaijan's presidential election are outlined below.

Political prisoners

Perhaps the most pressing human rights issue in Azerbaijan at present is the abundance of cases of political prisoners. Less than a month before the election, according to the Baku-based Human Rights Club more than 100 persons remain in detention or prison on politically motivated charges. Among these are journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, civic and political activists, and religious followers, many arrested in connection with the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression, assembly or association.

One political prisoner is would-be Republican Alternative (REAL) movement presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, whose registration was denied by the Central Election Commission, which claimed that 4,982 of the 41,247 signatures in support of his candidacy were invalid (40,000 are required). Mammadov appealed the decision with the Court of Appeals, which rejected the appeal after experts from the Ministry of Justice examined around 4,500 of the signatures in question, and claimed they were indeed invalid. Mammadov, who has been in detention since 4 February, faces up to 12 years in jail on charges of organising violent protests in the city of Ismayilli. Activists believe the charges to be politically motivated and Amnesty International has declared him to be a prisoner of conscience.

A group of seven members of the N!DA civic movement remain in detention, along with a member of the Azad Genclik (Free Youth) organisation, Ilkin Rustemzade, on a variety of charges related to drug and weapon possession and hooliganism believed to be politically motivated. The N!DA activists have been in detention since March, and Rustemzade since May. On 13 September, harsher charges were levied against the eight activists, who are now accused of organising violent protests and face up to 12 years in jail. These activists are also considered by Amnesty International to be prisoners of conscience.

Nine journalists, one blogger, and two human rights defenders are also among Azerbaijan's political prisoners, in detention or in prison in connection with exercising their right to freedom of expression.

Restrictions on freedom of expression

Beyond politically motivated arrest, critical individuals and organisations in Azerbaijan are targeted through a range of tactics. Violence against journalists is a serious problem, with more than 200 cases documented by the Baku-based Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) since the March 2005 murder of editor Elmar Huseynov, including a second murder, of journalist and writer Rafig Tagi in November 2011. IRFS reported that in the first half of 2013 alone, there were 26 cases of violence against journalists. In virtually none of these hundreds of cases have the true perpetrators been identified and prosecuted.

Critical journalists also face blackmail and other forms of pressure. Outspoken Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova has been subjected to a series of particularly nasty personal attacks, having twice had sex videos of her taken by hidden camera posted online – the most recent one in August, as well as a fake pornographic video purporting to depict her, and other threats and forms of pressure against her.

The existence of criminal defamation provisions has recently re-emerged as a pre-eminent freedom of expression concern. On 30 July, controversial new legislation took effect that extended criminal defamation provisions to the Internet. As a result, Azerbaijanis could now face up to three years in prison for their online postings. This move is likely to have a serious chilling effect on freedom of expression online, adding to the already widespread practice of self-censorship in the country.

Restrictions on freedom of assembly

Although the Azerbaijani Constitution and law provide for the right to peaceful freedom of assembly, in practice, this right is severely restricted. While only advance notice of demonstrations is required by law, authorities continue to interpret this as a requirement for groups to obtain permission. Demonstrations are only allowed in approved locations, all of which are distant from the city centre, and many of which are unsuitable for a variety of other reasons, such as being difficult to access or situated in areas under construction.

Authorities respond harshly to unsanctioned protests, using violence to disperse protesters and carrying out widespread arrests of protest organisers and participants. At one protest in March in response to the deaths of soldiers in non-combat situations, authorities used water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets against peaceful protesters, and even brought out – but refrained from using – a Long-Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), a device that has controversially been used for crowd-control purposes, referred to as a "sound cannon", as it can emit sounds reaching decibels of up to 162.

Recent amendments to the law on freedom of assembly sharply increased the fines for organising or participating in unsanctioned protests, which has already begun to have a chilling effect on freedom of assembly in the country as few individuals and organisations could afford to pay the steep fines. The maximum period of administrative detention has also been increased, meaning that participants in unsanctioned protests could now find themselves in detention for up to 60 days.

Restrictions on freedom of association

Critical organisations and individuals affiliated with them face a range of pressures in Azerbaijan, particularly opposition political parties, and NGOs working on issues related to human rights or democracy. The registration of NGOs remains politicised, with critical organisations disproportionately being denied registration by the state. A series of pieces of regressive legislation have recently been adopted, restricting the ability of independent NGOs to operate, and making it easier for the authorities to shut down unwelcome organisations. Human rights lawyers have also been subjected to growing pressures, such as disbarment and threats.

Opposition candidates and their supporters face difficulties in attempting to conduct even routine party activities in Azerbaijan's regions. Earlier this year, Musavat Party Chairman Isa Gambar (who is not running as a candidate, but is now supporting the united opposition National Council candidate, Jamil Hasanli), had his convoy violently attacked when he attempted to travel to the southern region of Lankaran. As a result, nine of the party activists travelling with him were injured. REAL movement leader Ilgar Mammadov was arrested after travelling to the Ismayilli region to investigate the causes of the then-on-going protests.

The issues described here are only a few examples of the many on-going systematic and widespread human rights violations taking place in Azerbaijan. In the absence of significant international pressure on the Azerbaijani government to cease such violations and take concrete steps to fulfil its international human rights obligations, such violations seem likely to continue, and worsen, in the run-up to the 9 October election and beyond.