I am grateful to the Helsinki Commission for holding this very important hearing at a crucial historical junction and for giving me the opportunity to speak about the state of democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan.
The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is a private, nonprofit foundation dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world. NED has been working in Azerbaijan since the mid-1990s and maintains a large portfolio of projects. Defending human rights, a traditional focus of the NED, remains a high priority in Azerbaijan. Programs include monitoring, reporting on, and providing legal assistance to victims of human rights abuses. NED’s programs also focus on expanding the capabilities of independent news providers.
Through membership in international organizations, including the UN, the Council of Europe, and the OSCE, Azerbaijan has committed itself to the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. However, despite long term engagement of Azerbaijan with these organizations, rights enforcement is highly selective and superficial. Azerbaijan manages to obtain the prestige associated with participation in international organizations without fulfilling the basic conditions of membership. When it joined the Council of Europe (CE) in 2001 it was understood that Azerbaijan was not meeting the requirements, but it was expected that participation in the CE would stimulate greater democratic development. Nevertheless, twelve years later Azerbaijan still has not met those basic criteria.
As of May 2014, Azerbaijan is the Chairman of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, a body charged with ensuring compliance with the judgments of the European Court for Human Rights. However, Azerbaijan has not itself complied with numerous ECHR judgments, particularly those related to freedom of association and the release of political prisoners. And though Azerbaijan is not in compliance with basic norms of human rights, freedom of speech and association that are a fundamental part of its OSCE obligations, it is about to host the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE at the end of this month.
Despite participation these international forums, over the last decade freedom in Azerbaijan has declined substantially. Overall, the country has gone from semi- free to a state of consolidated authoritarianism. In the Nations in Transit index published annually by Freedom House Azerbaijan shows a steep decline in every category of governance over the period from 2003 to 2013, with the overall score declining from 5.6 to 6.6. As a result, Azerbaijan is much closer to Uzbekistan’s 6.9 rating than Georgia’s 4.7.
In an overall context of declining freedom, the last year has seen a particularly rapid backsliding especially with respect to political prisoners, freedom of speech, and pressure against NGOs. In 2013 there had been a marked increase in grass roots protests sparked by instances of official abuse of power and social injustice. In January and March 2013 peaceful protests in Baku were violently dispersed, including the use of water cannons and rubber bullets. There were dozens of arrests and new prohibitions on freedom of assembly, on NGOs, and the media. This was the year of the presidential election and the crackdown was expected to diminish after those elections were held in October. However, it has continued unabated with long prison sentences handed down to civil society leaders.
Recent events in Ukraine have major implications for Azerbaijan, and are seen as part of the reason that the crackdown on government critics has continued. Some have conjectured that the Maidan protests, which toppled the corrupt government of President Viktor Yanukovich in Ukraine may have rattled nerves in Baku. However, since Ilham Aliev came to power in 2003, there have been revolutions in Ukraine, one in neighboring Georgia, two in Kyrgyzstan, and several in the Middle East that have had no appreciable effect on Azerbaijan.
There are two other dimensions of the crisis in Ukraine that have even greater significance for Azerbaijan. Russia’s annexation of Crimea sets a worrisome precedent for the region and may have implications for Nagorno-Karabakh and other frozen conflicts. The annexation of Crimea means that Russia is the arbiter of borders on the territory of the former Soviet Union and can decide these questions unilaterally and arbitrarily.
The crisis in Ukraine has also made the diversification of energy supplies a higher priority for Europe and a major opportunity for Azerbaijan to become a more significant regional transportation hub for gas. There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity by Baku to seek out more partners for various potential pipeline schemes. Baku is seizing the opportunities to extend its influence internally, while at home it is taking advantage of the crisis to silence government critics. The crisis in Ukraine has multifaceted implications for Baku, and for that reason Azerbaijan votes in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity at the UN, while domestically, the head of the presidential administration Ramiz Mekhtiev tells the media that the revolution in Ukraine was instigated by international NGOs whose work in Azerbaijan is suspect and should be drastically curtailed.
In the interest of time I am limiting my remarks to particularly egregious cases of political imprisonment and new onerous requirements against NGOs. It should be mentioned that there are numerous other problems related to freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and elections. They are documented in numerous reports, including the ODIHR monitoring report of the October 2013 presidential election and the DOS Annual Human Rights Report, as well as numerous reports by Azerbaijani and international NGOs.
The number of political prisoners continues to grow. The Institute of Peace and Democracy in Baku documents 130 political prisoners including persons who have been in jail since the 1990s. Amnesty International has recognized 19 prisoners of conscience from among the activists arrested since January 2013. In September 2013 Human Rights Watch published a comprehensive report, Tightening the Screws: Azerbaijan’s Crackdown of Civil Society and Dissent, which details spurious cases against activists, human rights defenders, and journalists. I’d like to draw your attention to just a few of these cases.
In March 2014, two prominent opposition figures, journalist Tofiq Yaqublu of the Musavat party, and Ilgar Mammadov of REAL, were sentenced to five and seven year sentences on false charges of inciting rioting in the town Izmaily, where they in fact arrived a day after the riot had occurred. Both men are considered Amnesty International prisoners of conscience. In its May 2014 ruling in Mammadov’s case, the European Court of Human Rights, found that Azerbaijan is in violation of articles of the convention, including Articles 5 and 18, and awarded damages to Ilgar Mammadov. The ECHR found that “the actual purpose of the impugned measures was to silence or punish the applicant for criticising the Government and attempting to disseminate what he believed was the true information that the Government were trying to hide.” The Committee of Ministers of the CE, which Azerbaijan now chairs, is supposed to oversee the implementation of the ECHR decisions.
In May 2014, eight members of the youth movement NIDA, also considered AI prisoners of conscience, received sentences ranging from 6-8 years. The members of the NIDA youth group organized protests against the deaths of Azeri Army conscripts in January and March 2013. The activists were disseminating criticisms of the government online, including Facebook and Twitter. NIDA activists were beaten and humiliated in detention and initially denied access to an attorney of their choice.
Human Rights Watch has profiled the use of narcotics charges against opposition youth activists who apparently had drugs planted on them by police. In each instance a youth activist who posted materials critical of the government on social media was arrested for narcotics charges but was questioned about political views and activities. In separate incidents government critics were prosecuted on highly dubious charges of drug possession, tested negative for presence of drugs in their bodies, and were initially denied legal representation, and subjected to abuse in detention. Rashad Ramazanov, a well- known blogger got a nine year jail term; Taleh Bagirov an imam who criticized the government in his sermon was sentenced to two years, and Dashig Malikov, a political activist with the Azerbaijani Popular Front Party, was sentenced to two and half years.
The last case I will mention is of an outspoken critic of the government , Leyla Yunus, the Director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, a major human rights monitoring organization and democracy think tank in Azerbaijan. Leyla Yunus has been active for two decades in many facets of human rights work, including assistance for political prisoners, working to reduce torture in detention, protecting women and religious and ethnic minorities. Leyla’s husband Arif Yunus is a historian and political scientist and author of numerous books about Azerbaijan. Leyla Yunus’s human rights works has repeatedly put her at odds with the government, which was most clearly on display in 2011 when their house was demolished with all her possessions inside after she campaigned actively for the property rights of people arbitrarily evicted from their homes. In April 2014 Leyla Yunus was detained and questioned at length in connection with a case against Rauf Mirkadirov, an Azeri journalist detained under dubious treason charges for his participation in “Track II” meetings with Armenian colleagues. Both Leyla and Arif Yunus have participated in numerous such meetings which are seen by the OSCE mediators as an important avenue for seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. During the questioning, over a month ago, Leyla and Arif Yunus had their passports taken away. Since no charges have been filed against them and there are no formal barriers to travel, their passports should be returned and they should be permitted to attend conferences such as the OSCE meeting in Berne this week that they are unfortunately missing.
Freedom of information has also deteriorated. The government has control over broadcast media and most newspapers, and it is now trying to establish greater control over the internet. June 2013amendments to the criminal code made defamation over the Internet a criminal offense carrying penalties of up to three years in jail. The amendments represent a major blow to freedom of expression making it possible to launch criminal cases against online activists. During the pre-election period Azerbaijan was jamming satellite signals of news programs in the Azeri language, including that of RFE/RL. Several journalists are serving politically motivated jail sentences including Avaz Zeynalli, the editor the opposition newspaper Khural, and Hilal Mammadov the editor of the Tolishi Sado newspaper.
Freedom of Religion:
Freedom of religion is another area where a decline has been documented. US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has downgraded Azerbaijan to a Tier 2 country for the first time in 2013. The Commission focuses its criticism on the 2009 Law on Religion which curtailed a range of religious activity, made unregistered religious activity illegal, and imposed extensive government censorship of religious literature. The law has been repeatedly amended to increase penalties and has led to numerous raids, detentions and arrests. In its 2014 report the USCIRF includes a list of 51 religious prisoners in Azerbaijan.
Pressure against NGOs:
The climate has also become much more difficult for NGOs. Amendments to the NGO law in February 2013increased existing sanctions against unregistered NGO activity. It became illegal for unregistered groups to receive grants or donations. In conjunction with arbitrary refusal of registration, this places civic activists in an impossible position. The amendments also dramatically increase penalties for any NGO that does not register its grants. Another set of amendments that extends onerous requirements to international organizations was passed in February 2014. Grantees report months of effort with arbitrary bureaucracy to register their grants that are so far inconclusive. There is considerable apprehension that the regulations will be selectively enforced against organizations that are critical of the government.
However even prior to these amendments, Azerbaijan was seen as violating freedom of association due to overregulation of NGOs. In a 2011 opinion the Venice Commission found that the process for registering NGOs in Azerbaijan was too “cumbersome, lengthy, and unpredictable.” In five separate decisions the ECHR has found that Azerbaijan violates freedom of association by arbitrarily denying registration to NGOs. Azerbaijan should be bringing its legislation in compliance with ECHR and Venice Commission opinions rather than imposing even greater burdens on NGOs.
The case of Anar Mammadli and Bashir Suleymanli of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDS) illustrates the way these laws are used to silence critics of the government. EMDS is the most authoritative domestic vote monitoring organization in Azerbaijan and it has been attempting to register for over 5 years and has been denied each time. The organization attempted to sue the government to obtain registration but the courts refused to consider its case. Last year the EMDS entered into a contract with a registered NGO to carry out its activities. This arrangement became grounds for a criminal case against Anar Mammadli, the Chairman of EMDS, who was sentenced to 5.5 years in jail and Bashir Suleymanli, the Executive Director, who was sentenced to 3.5 years. Mammadli and Suleymanli were profiled in detail in a recent Amnesty International report that also considers them prisoners of conscience.
In closing, I am grateful to the Helsinki Commission for convening this hearing, which focuses attention on Azerbaijan at a very important moment. I hope that the Commission will remain equally engaged in the future by calling on the government of Azerbaijan to release political prisoners and repeal onerous new regulations against NGOs. Further, I would urge that the Parliamentary Assembly of OSCE which will convene in Baku this year to include voices from Azerbaijan’s embattled civil society in its deliberations. I would also urge Members of Congress who travel to Azerbaijan as part of the OSCE delegation or other congressional delegations to visit political prisoners in jail and meet with their families and attorneys. In the case of Leyla and Arif Yunus, who are being held in limbo, their passports should be returned and they should be permitted to travel internationally.
Mr. Chairman, Azerbaijan has a longstanding democratic tradition, and in 1918 became the first democracy in the Muslim world. The civil society of Azerbaijan works to fulfill that legacy and remind the government of its OSCE commitments. These brave and talented people should be permitted to do their important work without harassment and intimidation.