Eight-million-strong ex-Soviet Azerbaijan is an oil-rich country with a troubling record of human rights abuses. Inconsistent with its self-image of a “tolerant country,” Azerbaijani authorities persecute journalists (and now bloggers), shut down international and independent media outlets and violate other rights.
A number of journalists in Azerbaijan are either in prison (like Eynulla Fatullayev, Ganimat Zahid and Mushfig Huseynov), have suspended sentences or have faced physical attacks. The most famous of the arrested journalists, Fatullayev, is serving an over 10-year conviction. Initially arrested for challenging Azerbaijan’s official account of the 1992 Khojalu massacre of Azeri civilians by Armenian forces during the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Fatullayev was later convicted of “terrorism” for an article he wrote while serving time in prison. Police reportedly used excessive force to prevent journalists from reporting or filming politically sensitive events such as opposition party rallies in 2008. A less exposed harassment of journalists (and citizens in general) continues in Naxçivan, (also known as Nakhichevan), an exclave of Azerbaijan sandwiched between Armenia and Iran. While Azerbaijan’s persecution of journalists is alarming, the government did pardon satirist Mirza Sakit Zahidov in April 2009.
In addition to persecuting and harassing individuals, Azerbaijan’s authorities have shut down several media outlets, including BBC and Radio Free Europe broadcasts. The move came in conjunction with a constitutional referendum that instituted unlimited presidency in March 2009.
Like neighboring Armenia, Azerbaijan is a source and a transit country for human trafficking. Many women and girls are trafficked to Turkey and the UAE for sexual exploitation.
While Azerbaijan’s official media advertise the country as a haven for minorities, both ethnic and religious communities face discrimination. Two prominent members of the ethnic Talysh minority, Dr. Novruzali Mammadov (editor-in-chief of Tolishi sado, meaning Talishi voice) and his colleague Elman Guliyev, were sentenced to 10-year and 6-year imprisonment, respectively, for allegedly spying for neighboring Iran. Mammadov, who according to an Amnesty International official was tried only because of “promotion of the Talysh culture and language in Azerbaijan,” died in a prison hospital of a heart attack on August 17, 2009. Other persecuted minority leaders in Azerbaijan include Baptist pastors Hamid Shabanov and Zaur Balaev.
Less publicized is the violation of ethnic Armenians’ cultural rights manifested in the destruction of their material heritage in Azerbaijan, a delicate issue for rights organizations due to the unsolved conflict over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan. (Amnesty International does not take a position on the territorial dispute.) Such sensitivity has silenced most international organizations from condemning Azerbaijan’s December 2005 destruction of ancient Armenian tombstones, intricately-carved Christian monuments known as khatchkars, in exclave Naxçivan’s remote Culfa (Djulfa) region.