By Mina Muradova (10/01/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Whereas Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev intensively uses social media platforms for promoting Azerbaijan as a prosperous and democratic country, human rights observers condemn the authorities of this post-Soviet country for a recent escalation of repression against civil society activists.
“A free society has emerged in Azerbaijan. All democratic institutions are available and they operate successfully,” – @presidentaz, the official account of President Aliyev tweeted in early September. In a minute, another tweet said, “All freedoms, including the freedom of speech, the freedom of conscience, the freedom of the press and free Internet, are available.” And later, “Azerbaijani society is a free society, and this is our great achievement.”
The regional analyst and blogger Arzu Geybullayeva said that for anyone familiar with Azerbaijani realities, “the presidential feed is bitterly ironic, if at times darkly entertaining … Elsewhere in the post-Soviet world, authoritarians have figured out that succinct means success in social media. But Aliyev’s feed reads like one long speech regularly interrupted by a pesky 140 character limit,” she wrote on GlobalVoices, a citizen media platform.
The reason for Geybullayeva’s concern is the fact that the number of politically motivated detentions has increased sharply in the country after the defeat of a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) resolution on “The follow-up to the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan” on January 26, 2013. Amnesty International has recognized 24 people as “prisoners of conscience” in Azerbaijan, who were “jailed solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression” in recent months.
The latest in a series of attempts to silence government critics is the case of journalist and human rights defender Ilgar Nasibov, who was found unconscious with severe head trauma and broken bones in his face, in late August. “He was called from home to go the office in the evening,” his wife Malahat Nasibova told Azadliq radio. “They said some petitioners had come. They attacked him suddenly in the office and inflicted numerous injuries.” Unidentified people stormed the office of the Democracy and NGO Development Resource Centre in the Nakhchivan exclave of Azerbaijan, which he heads. Amnesty International reported that the Nasibov couple has long faced regular intimidation because government officials want them to leave the region, as they are “the only remaining independent voices there.” Even though the authorities reportedly detained one of Nasibov’s assailants, they have not initiated a criminal investigation.
Among the total number of politically motivated arrests, more than ten members of the media and bloggers are behind bars or awaiting trial. It is the highest number that the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media has observed in Azerbaijan since the office was established. The OSCE’s representative Dunja Mijatović called the government of Azerbaijan to stop “the continued persecution of media and free voices in the country.” According to Mijatović, “These cases and accompanying smear campaigns have resulted in worrying setbacks for the development of free expression in Azerbaijan that create a chilling effect on media and society as a whole … While I do not challenge the lawful right of the authorities to scrutinize the activities of non-governmental organizations, such actions should not be aimed at silencing critical voices.”
On September 15, local media published a letter from prominent human rights activist Leyla Yunus to her husband Arif Yunus. The couple are kept in different pre-trial detention centers. She compared the political climate in contemporary Azerbaijan with the massive political repressions in the Soviet Union orchestrated by Joseph Stalin. “They began to arrest whole families, as Stalin did. The tyrant behaves as if there is no CE or EU or other international organizations,” she stated. Yunus reported that her cellmate verbally harassed her and threatened “to break her arms and legs” immediately after Yunus had met with representatives of the UN Commission against Torture in the Kurdakhani prison.
Three days later, the European Parliament (EP) called on Azerbaijan to undertake “long-overdue human rights reforms without further delay and cease their harassment of civil society organizations, opposition politicians and independent journalists and lift the ban of public gatherings in Baku.” Members of the EP condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the arrest and detention of human rights activists and demanded their “immediate and unconditional” release.
The Azerbaijani leadership continues to brush off any allegations that it is behind the serial arrests of its critics and the closure of their organizations. “It is regrettable that these NGOs and individuals – and some journalists – fall back on the foreign forces that fund them and regard themselves as above national law, refusing to report their grant-funded projects, file accounts, pay their taxes and comply with other legal requirements set out by the government,” Ali Hasanov, political affairs chief in the presidential administration, told the AzerTag news agency. “In those circles, the appropriate actions that state institutions have taken are sadly being misrepresented as ‘pressure on civil society’ and as ‘restrictions’ on the functioning of NGOs and the media. It’s a campaign to blacken Azerbaijan’s reputation.”