Azerbaijan to host European Games amid widespread and relentless repression

Photo: TOFIK BABAYEV/AFP/Getty Images
March 5, 2015

Azerbaijan to host European Games amid widespread and relentless repression

Threats, physical violence and the imprisonment of government critics have become the hallmark of the Azerbaijan regime as the country prepares to host the first European Games, said Amnesty International in a new report released today, 100 days before the opening ceremony.

Guilty of Defending Rights: Azerbaijan’s human rights defenders and activists behind barshighlights the mounting persecution of government critics, detained under false charges, beaten and threatened and deprived of urgent medical care and lawyers.

"Its authorities are among the most repressive in Europe and would certainly be on the medal winning podium if prizes were on offer for the number of activists and rights defenders behind bars.” 

At least 22 prisoners of conscience are currently languishing in prison or in detention in Azerbaijan awaiting trial following trumped up charges ranging from fraud and embezzlement to abuse of drugs and even treason.

In June 2014 President Aliyev stated in his address to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) that freedom of expression, association and assembly are assured in Azerbaijan.

However, prominent human rights defenders spoke of a different reality, detailing more than 90 instances of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrest and politically motivated charges against human rights defenders, journalists and others daring to criticize the Azerbaijani government. The response of the authorities was swift; within a matter of weeks, those who had given their testimony to the Parliamentary Assembly were arrested, one after another.

“These latest arrests have effectively paralysed civil society and closed the lid on freedom of expression - marking the nadir of the country’s human rights record since independence,” said John Dalhuisen.

Leyla Yunus, a 60-year-old human rights defender and one of the most outspoken and high profile critics of the government, was arrested in July 2014 - a few days after calling for a boycott of the Games because of the regime’s dire human rights record.

Leyla Yunus told her lawyer that a warden dragged her from her cell to an empty room where she was thrown on the ground and kicked. On another occasion a group of men made sexually threatening gestures towards her. She has spent the last six months in prison awaiting trial where the harsh conditions have aggravated her health problems. She suffers from diabetes and hepatitis C.

Leyla Yunus was charged with treason, conducting illegal business, tax evasion, abuse of authority, fraud and forgery. These trumped up and politically motivated charges were the result of new regulations brought in by the government to allow them to arbitrarily shut down NGOs and imprison their leaders.

Crackdown on journalists
The authorities have intensified a crackdown on journalists critical of the government. Award-winning investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, was detained on 5 December 2014 on an implausible charge of inciting a former colleague to suicide.

Khadija had published a list of political prisoners and was also investigating claims of links between President Aliiyev’s family and a lucrative construction project in Baku. She previously received anonymous threats that intimate photos of herself, believed to have been taken by government officials covertly at her home, would be published if she did not abandon her work.

Trumped up drug and hooliganism charges against youth activists
The authorities also target critical and outspoken young activists, accusing them of drug-related offences or hooliganism. The allegations used to secure their arrest are highly questionable and questioning by the police focused on their political views.

Faraj Karimov, a popular blogger, claimed that he was beaten by police to make him admit to drug-related charges. He was threatened that unless he signed a “confession”, police would “cause problems for his parents” by planting weapons at their house.

Violence is also rife in detention. Orkhan Eyyubzade, a 19-year-old pro-democracy activist who was serving a 20-day administrative detention for participating in an “unauthorized” peaceful gathering, was viciously attacked by two policemen. He told his lawyer that police forced him to lie on his stomach, handcuffed his hands behind his back, tore off his underwear, punched and kicked him and threatened to rape him with a bottle. No effective investigation into these allegations has been carried out. Instead, he himself was accused of assaulting police officers and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.

Amnesty International is calling on the Azerbaijani authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience and to fully and impartially investigate all allegations of ill-treatment by state and non-state actors. Amnesty International further calls on the authorities to cease from threatening and criminally charging people for exercising their freedom of expression and association.