Contact: Sharon Singh, email@example.com, 202-509-8194
(Washington, D.C.) -- The international community must not turn a blind eye to human rights violations in Azerbaijan, Amnesty International said today in a new report released at a Baku press conference cataloging a clampdown on dissent since protests erupted in March.
"The Spring That Never Blossomed: Freedoms Suppressed in Azerbaijan" details a wave of intimidation and arrests around protests against corruption and the increasing suppression of independent media, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and opposition parties.
Since March, youth activists and opposition figures have been jailed on arbitrary or trumped up charges while journalists and human rights defenders have been threatened and harassed.
Amnesty International considers 17 people convicted around the time of the protests to be prisoners of conscience and asks for their immediate release.
"The clampdown has sent out a clear and calculated message - that public expression of dissent will not be tolerated, nor will any attempt to galvanize public opinion against the current regime,” said Natalia Nozadze, Amnesty International's Azerbaijan researcher. "The European Union and other international partners of Azerbaijan must take every opportunity to press for the release of the prisoners of conscience and to put an end to the suppression of peaceful protest, critical opinion and political opposition."
Hundreds of people gathered in the streets of the capital Baku in March and April this year demanding democratic reforms and greater respect for human rights. Inspired by mass protests in the Middle East and North Africa, opposition activists used social media to organize and disseminate information.
The Azerbaijani authorities responded by banning the protests and harassing and arresting bloggers and activists.
Following the protests 14 activists and members of opposition political parties were convicted of “organizing and participating in public disorder” and sentenced to up to three years in prison. Amnesty International believes that there is no evidence that any of the imprisoned opposition supporters were engaged in anything more than the legitimate exercise of their right to freedom of expression and association in seeking to organize peaceful protests in central Baku.
The crackdown intensified the already heavy-handed approach of the authorities.
Criminal and civil defamation charges continue to be used to silence critical media, while foreign media outlets were banned from national airwaves in 2009. Defamation continues to be a criminal offense under Azerbaijani law.
"The government is tightening the noose on any form of communication by restricting access to information, printing paper and distribution outlets for independent media thus leaving the public in an informational black-out," said Ganimat Zahid, the editor of pro-opposition newspaper Azadlig, to Amnesty International. "Increasingly, we rely on social media to fill the vacuum for informed debate."
The government is also currently considering laws that could potentially restrict web users’ access to information and criminalizing "misinformation," further restricting online freedom of expression. Authorities began by targeting bloggers and online activists using online media such as social networking websites as alternative outlets for critical opinion, independent reporting, and the organization of protests.
In February 2011, history student and opposition activist Jabbar Savalan was arrested after re-posting critical of the government articles on Facebook and using the social media to call for protests inspired by those in the Middle East and North Africa. He was beaten while in police custody to force him to sign a false confession and was sentenced to over two years in prison for the alleged possession of marijuana. Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience.
Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, an opposition activist and co-founder of the Facebook group calling for the March 11 virtual protest against government corruption and oppression, was arrested three times starting in November 2010 for evading conscription and failing to register with the police. While in police custody he was punched, strangled and threatened with rape, allegations which have not been investigated. On May 18, 2011, Bakhtiyar was convicted of evading military service and convicted to two years in prison. Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience.
"The cumulative effect of these practices, together with the long-standing impunity of the authorities for such actions, has instilled a climate of fear and self-censorship in Azerbaijani society, which is stalling, indeed reversing, the country’s transition to a stable democracy," said Nozadze. "In oil-rich Azerbaijan, 20 years of independence, economic prosperity and relative stability have failed to translate into greater fundamental freedoms for its citizens while the consolidation of authoritarian rule over the last decade has been largely ignored by the outside world. The Azerbaijan authorities must reverse this trend and their international partners must make it clear that they will not do deals with those who carry out human rights violations."
Azerbaijan has a history of using trumped-up drug charges to jail those seen as critical of the government. One person, Jabbar Savalan, was convicted to two and half years in prison on May 4, 2011 for supposedly possessing marijuana. Authorities arrested him after he posted a Facebook message calling for protests against the government. A history student in college, Savalan was an active member of an opposition political party. He was convicted despite the blood test taken following his arrest, which showed no traces of drug use. He also did not have access to an attorney, was intimidated and assaulted by the police and forced to sign a conviction. Savalan maintains that he does not use drugs and that the marijuana was planted on him. The human rights organization believes the charges against Savalan were fabricated to silence him and has designated him an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience.
Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom and dignity are denied.
For a copy of "The Spring That Never Blossomed: Freedoms Suppressed in Azerbaijan" please email Sharon Singh at ssingh@aiusa. For photos visit https://adam.amnesty.org/asset-bank/action/search?attribute_208=%22EUR+5....
For more information visit www.amnestyusa.org.