30 September 2013. The government of Azerbaijan’s intensified crackdown on independent dissent severely undermines the prospect of free, fair and credible presidential elections, says global civil society alliance, CIVICUS and the Azerbaijan-based Center for National and International Studies (CNIS).
“The government’s pre-emptive campaign to silence independent journalists, human rights defenders and civil society groups ahead of the October 9th elections is emblematic of the systematic and widespread repression of civil society in the country,” said Ine Van Severen of CIVICUS. “Azerbaijan’s European trade and development partners need to revaluate their relationship with the government and demand greater protection for democratic freedoms in light of the country’s international obligations,” said Severen.
Since August this year, a number of journalists and civil society activists have been imprisoned on seemingly unfounded charges to muzzle independent reporting. On September 17th, Parviz Hashimli, Chairman of the Center for Protection of Political and Civil Rights and a journalist with Bizim Yol (Our Way) newspaper, was arrested by officers of the Ministry of National Security. The following day, Hashimli was remanded into custody for two months on spurious allegations of smuggling and illegal possession of firearms under the Azerbaijani Criminal Code.
On 2 August 2013, Sardar Alibeili, Editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper P.S. Nota, was also sentenced to two months pre-trial detention on charges of criminal hooliganism. Alibeili, who faces up to seven years in jail under the charges, recently published a number of editorials from exiled dissidents implicating President Ilham Aliyev in corruption and serious human rights violations.
“This pattern of violations is a sad indication that the authorities have failed to create an enabling environment for civil society and casts severe doubt on their willingness to conduct free and fair elections,” said Leila Alieva, Director of CNIS.
The government has also introduced a raft of legislative restrictions severely limiting press and civil society freedoms. In May 2013, the Azeri Parliament approved amendments to the defamation law, extending criminal defamation to include comments made on the internet. On 14 August 2013, Mikail Talybov became the first victim of the law after being sentenced to 1 year of “corrective labour” for posting comments critical of an Azeri national bank on Facebook.
Moreover, on 15 February 2013, the Azeri Parliament approved a number of far-reaching legislative amendments to control and suppress the activities of civil society groups. Changes to the Law on Non-Governmental Organisations, the Law on Grants, and the Code on Administrative Offences unduly curtail the independence of international and national CSOs by requiring them to reveal the identities of their benefactors. In addition, amendments to the Law on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly approved in November 2012 allow for the imposition of draconian fines of up to 1,050 and 2,900 EUR respectively for organizers and participants of ‘illegal’ demonstrations.
CIVICUS and CNIS urge the Government of Azerbaijan to put in place measures to ensure free and fair elections scheduled for 9 October 2013. At a minimum, democratic freedoms in compliance with international human rights law should be upheld by: (i) immediately and unconditionally releasing all detained journalists, human rights defenders and civil society activists; and (ii) repealing or amending restrictive amendments to the country’s legal framework for CSOs, public assembly and all provisions qualifying defamation as a criminal offence.