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Threats, arrests and prosecutions of those who have voiced criticism of the proposed amendments to the Constitution have been a defining feature of the authorities’ campaign ahead of the referendum scheduled in Azerbaijan on 26 September, Amnesty International said ahead of the vote.

“The referendum has been accompanied by arrests and intimidation from the beginning. Those who have attempted to criticise and campaign against these proposals have faced assaults and harassment by the authorities,” said Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International.

Last month, police arrested three political activists from the opposition group, Republican Alternative (REAL) after they launched a petition against the referendum and the proposed changes to the Constitution.

REAL’s executive director Natig Jafarli was taken from his home in the capital Baku to the Prosecutor General’s Office for questioning on 12 August. On the same day, in a pre-trial hearing where he was denied access to a lawyer of his choice, he was charged with illegal entrepreneurship and abuse of authority, and remanded for four months. Amnesty International believes this is politically motivated prosecution. On 9 September the court revoked pre-trial detention and released him, however the criminal charges and case against him remain pending.

Two activists of REAL, Elshan Gasimov and Togrul Ismail, were detained on 15 August by plain-clothed police officers on their way to pick up campaigning materials. They were held incommunicado overnight and on 16 August the local court sentenced them to seven days of administrative detention on charges of resisting the police. They were released after the completion of their sentence.

The proposed amendments to the Constitution would give further powers to the already powerful president, including a longer presidential term, the authority to declare early presidential elections at will and dissolve parliament.

The amendments will also lead to violations of the right to freedom of association. While in practice, public assemblies have already been prohibited in central Baku, the proposed amendments will grant the government even more power to interfere with the freedom of assembly in violation of international standards.

All major elections in recent years in Azerbaijan have been marked by crackdowns on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. In the last three years, virtually all outspoken human rights defenders and other prominent government critics, including human rights lawyers and investigative journalists, have been targeted through arrest and imprisonment on trumped-up charges. Local human rights groups estimate that more than 70 people remain imprisoned in Azerbaijan on politically motivated charges.

“Azerbaijani authorities continuously violate human rights ahead of elections. Every single electoral campaign turns out to be a campaign of intimidation of civil society,” said Denis Krivosheev.

“The Azerbaijani authorities must fully respect its international human rights obligations and give every person including their critics the opportunity to express their views freely.”