Azerbaijan: Presidential elections amidst repressive onslaught on opposition and civil society

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Azerbaijan’s presidential elections will take place on Wednesday, 9 October. In the run up of these elections, police and courts are exceptionally active in detaining and prosecuting opponents of the current president, Ilham Aliyev.

Earlier this year, a FIDH mission visited Azerbaijan to investigate the extent of pre-electoral repression. The mission met with the authorities, opposition parties, NGOs, human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, bloggers, young activists and victims. Notably, the FIDH delegation visited a pre-trial detention centre on the outskirts of Baku, where it met with Avaz Zeynalli, a journalist who on 12 March 2013 was sentenced to nine years in prison for “taking a large bribe” and “tax evasion”. It also visited Hilal Mammadov, another journalist and minority rights defender who on 27 September 2013 was sentenced to five years in prison for “the illegal selling of drugs".

The situation of journalists in Azerbaijan is dire. Freedom of speech is permanently suppressed and journalists are in permanent danger of prosecution under defamation law. Moreover, the director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, Emin Huseynov, told the FIDH mission that “already since 2006, if you wrote against the regime, they could charge you with possession of drugs, arms, pornography or hooliganism”. Dialogue with the authorities is impossible. The regime only works with its own media, handing over convenient information and denying interviews. “It is notable that ever since he took up office in 2003, President Ilham Aliyev has not given a single interview to an Azerbaijani journalist”, said Mr Huseynov.

The FIDH mission met with Turgut Gambar, a member of the youth opposition movement, NIDA. Shortly before the meeting, on 7 March 2013, three NIDA members, Shakhin Novruzlu, Mahammad Azizov and Bakhtiar Guliev, were detained. Mr Gambar explained that they had been arrested by officers from the Ministry of National Security: “In the evening, the officers visited Shakhin’s home and claimed to have found Molotov cocktails, drugs and 110 000 manats (about 103 593 EUR) in cash…”. At about the same time, officers also arrested Mr Azizov and Mr Guliev, charging them with the possession of drugs. All NIDA board members have now been arrested. In addition to the initial accusations, on 12 September 2013 these individuals were subject to new charges under Article 220.1 (instigating riots).

Opposition parties are also being harassed and have had their access to funding severely restricted. As a result, Azerbaijan’s legitimate opposition has not had a single seat in parliament since 2010. “Some say that the opposition is weak, but how can it be strong when it has no resources? Since the repression started, [the opposition] has been shrinking fast”, explained Intigam Aliyev, a lawyer and director of the NGO, Legal Education Society.

As a result, there is now little pre-electoral suspense in Azerbaijan. “Ilham Aliyev awaits a landslide victory not because he is an outstanding candidate, but because the government has crushed the opposition and intimidated dissidents and any potential opposition electorate” , said Eldar Zeynalov from the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, a FIDH member organisation.

Freedom of assembly was de facto abolished in Azerbaijan in 2006, since which no peaceful assembly has ever been permitted in the centre of Baku. In the event of unauthorised demonstrations the police regularly ’preventively detain’ protesters as they assemble. The FIDH mission witnessed this on 10 March 2013. On that day a peaceful demonstration against human losses in military service was violently dispersed, with about a hundred people taken to police stations.

“The Azerbaijani authorities must stop this repression immediately” says Karim Lahidji, FIDH President. “Tensions in Azerbaijan are high and the authorities must ensure that after the elections citizens can assemble to peacefully demonstrate their opinion” , he added. “The international community, most notably the UN, the Council of Europe and the European Union, have a crucial role to play. They must show that they are following the situation in Azerbaijan closely and insist that the regime respects the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, in accordance with international law and the Azerbaijan’s constitution” , concluded Karim Lahidji.

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