By Mina Muradova (01/22/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
As Azerbaijan prepares to host the first European Games this summer, new sport and non-sport venues are being constructed and infrastructure is being renovated. By investing millions to organize the games in just 30 months, Azerbaijan’s government seeks to promote the young Caspian state through an ambitious sport event.
However, against this backdrop, Azerbaijan’s government has intensified its crackdown on journalists and civil society representatives. Human Rights Watch issued a statement on January 20, saying that over the past year, the Azerbaijani government used a range of bogus criminal charges, including narcotics and weapons possession, tax evasion, hooliganism, incitement, and even treason, to convict or imprison at least 34 human rights defenders, political and civil activists, journalists, and bloggers, prompting others to flee the country or go into hiding. Following the prosecutors’ requests, courts have frozen the bank accounts of at least 50 nongovernmental groups and in some cases the accounts of their staff, as part of ongoing criminal investigations against several foreign donors.
Another human rights watchdog, the International Federation for Human Rights, stated that Azerbaijan has adopted aThe International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), whole arsenal of “anti-NGO laws” since 2013. NGOs are henceforth compelled to register their organization with the government and their funds with the Ministry of Justice in order to receive funding (whether from inside or outside the country). Those who cannot or refuse to register their subsidies from abroad therefore break the law. The use of non-registered subsidies is now deemed to be an administrative offense and the judiciary considers the funds to be a source of taxable personal income.
The latest move to silence alternative voices was a police raid on the office of U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on December 26, detaining journalists for hours. Former journalists of the station have also been questioned by police. Inspectors from the prosecutor’s office ransacked the company safe, seized computers, memory sticks, and documents, and sealed the office shut.
“This operation is clearly designed to block the activities of our Baku bureau and threaten our journalists,” Radio Azadliq director Kenan Aliyev told Reporters Without Borders. In a statement, Radio Azadliq co-director and Editor Nenad Pejic said: “The order comes from the top as retaliation for our reporting and as a thuggish effort to silence RFE/RL.” Prosecutors said the bureau’s work was to be terminated, but did not specify for how long.
Azerbaijani prosecutors have staged similar raids in recent months on other so-called foreign entities, including foreign nongovernmental organizations such as IREX, the National Democratic Institute, and Oxfam.
The Baku bureau of RFE/RL was shut down twenty days after the arrest of its prominent anchor Khadija Ismayilova. She is well-known as an investigative reporter who published several reports about government corruption and the business of the president’s family members. Ismayilova was detained for two months on heavily disputed charges of “inciting” a former colleague’s suicide. If convicted, Ismayilova may face up to seven years in prison.
Pejic said “The arrest and detention of Khadija Ismayilova is the latest attempt in a two-year campaign to silence a journalist who has investigated government corruption and human rights abuses in Azerbaijan … The charges brought against her today are outrageous. Khadija is being punished for her journalism.”
In 2012, the Zeit Stiftung and Fritt Ord Foundation awarded Ismayilova with the Gerd Bucerius Free Press of Eastern Europe Award. She has received many other awards and is a respected journalist. She has published stories related to corruption in Azerbaijan, in particular within the Organized Crime and Corruption Project. Most recently, she also worked on consolidating the list of up to 100 political prisoners in Azerbaijan, prepared by Azerbaijani NGOs. Although her accuser, Tural Mustafayev, has withdrawn his complaint, she remains in detention.
“The arrest of Ismayilova is nothing but orchestrated intimidation, which is a part of the ongoing campaign aimed at silencing her free and critical voice,” Dunja Mijatović, the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, said in a written statement. Khadija Ismayilova was arrested the day after the head of the Presidential Administration Ramiz Mehdiyev published a lengthy article in which he directly calls NGOs the “fifth column.” He publicly accused Ismayilova of treason and called RFE/RL’s employees in the country spies.
“She along with her ‘friends’ prepare anti-Azerbaijani programs, make indecent statements, demonstrate an openly hostile attitude to well-known public figures and disseminate a lie. Her position has nothing in common with her journalist profession,” Mehdiyev wrote in his article and specifically noted: “It is clear that this sort of defiance pleases Ms. Ismayilova’s patrons abroad.”
This week a group of international NGOs started a campaign urging President Ilham Aliyev to release prominent human rights defenders who are currently behind bars in Azerbaijan. Another group of NGOs sent a letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel ahead of her upcoming meeting with Aliyev on January 21 in Berlin. “President Aliyev is seeking a greater legitimacy by meeting the world leaders and hosting mega sporting events,” said Hugh Williamson, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia director. “Merkel should send a clear message that closer political and economic ties with Europe are directly linked to Azerbaijan’s release of unjustly jailed journalists and human rights advocates and respect for fundamental human rights.”
The “Sports for Rights” NGO coalition issued a statement saying “Azerbaijan’s partners should insist that this terrible situation in the country’s human rights record is removed before Baku plays host to the European Games, and that these people be released immediately and unconditionally. We sincerely hope that we can count on your [Merkel’s] principled leadership on this urgent matter.”