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.
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
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,
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.
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 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
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
Recent amendments to the law on freedom of assembly
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
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
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.