Some prisoners of conscience were released, but at least 14 remained in prison. Most human rights organizations forced to suspend their activities in previous years were unable to resume their work. Reprisals against independent journalists and activists persisted. International human rights monitors were denied access to Azerbaijan. Torture and other ill-treatment was widely reported, as well as arbitrary arrests of government critics.
Azerbaijan’s oil-dependent economy was deeply affected by falling oil prices and the decline of its currency, the manat, by half of its value. Food prices rose without an equivalent rise in wages. From early January, spontaneous, and in most cases peaceful, protests against the devaluation of the manat and consequent price hikes spread across the country. The protests were clamped down on by police and security forces. On 18 January, President Aliyev signed a decree increasing the minimum pension and salaries of state employees by 10%. The measure remained insufficient to address the decline in living standards.
In April, hostilities escalated between Azerbaijan and the Armenia-backed break-away Nagorno-Karabakh region. The fighting lasted four days and resulted in civilian and military casualties on both sides and small territorial gains by Azerbaijani forces.
In September, a referendum approved proposed amendments to the Constitution, giving further powers to the President. The amendments extended the presidential term and granted the President the authority to declare early Presidential elections and to dissolve Parliament.
In November, the EU Council approved a new mandate for the negotiation of a “comprehensive” agreement with Azerbaijan to replace the 1996 Partnership and Co-operation Agreement (PCA) which governed EU-Azerbaijan bilateral relations. The political dialogue under the PCA had been halted in recent years as Azerbaijan’s human rights record continued to deteriorate.
Prisoners of conscience
Government critics continued to be incarcerated. In the early part of the year, several high-profile prisoners convicted following politically motivated trials were released, among them at least 12 prisoners of conscience. None of those released were cleared of criminal charges. Following its visit to Azerbaijan in May, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention noted that “human rights defenders, journalists, political and religious leaders continue to be arbitrarily detained”.
Some released prisoners of conscience, including journalist Khadija Ismayilova and human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, were banned from travelling abroad; most were effectively barred from continuing their work.
The criminal cases opened in 2014 and 2015 against a group of prominent NGOs, which were used as a pretext to arrest several prisoners of conscience for tax evasion and fraud, remained open at the end of the year.
On 10 May, youth activists Giyas Ibrahimov and Bayram Mammadov were detained on trumped-up drug-related charges after they painted political graffiti on a statue of Azerbaijan’s former President Heydar Aliyev. They were sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment on 25 October and 8 December respectively.
On 18 November, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal by prisoner of conscience Ilgar Mammadov, upholding his seven-year prison sentence. The sentence was upheld despite a European Court of Human Rights ruling that found Ilgar Mammadov had been arrested without any evidence, and repeated calls by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe for his release.
At the end of the year, at least 14 prisoners of conscience remained in prison. Local human rights activists estimated that more than 100 people remained imprisoned on politically motivated charges.
Freedom of expression
All mainstream media remained under government control; independent outlets continued to come under pressure from the authorities. Independent journalists faced intimidation, harassment and physical violence in connection with reporting that criticized the authorities.
On 20 April, the authorities launched a criminal investigation into Meydan TV, an internet-based, independent Azeri-language media outlet, alleging illegal entrepreneurship, large-scale tax evasion and abuse of power. Fifteen Meydan TV journalists, some reporting from abroad, were also under investigation. Those working in Azerbaijan received travel restrictions prohibiting them from leaving the country. The criminal investigations against them were ongoing at the end of the year.
In November, Afgan Sadykhov and Teymur Kerimov, two journalists reporting on social issues, were detained and charged with assault after they were attacked by unidentified persons.
Zamin Gadji, a journalist with the opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat, was summoned and threatened by police at Baku police station on 28 November over a Facebook post criticizing the government’s failure to investigate high-profile murder cases.
On 29 November, Parliament approved amendments to the Criminal Code criminalizing online insults against the honour and dignity of the President. The new law provided for fines and imprisonment for up to three years.
Freedom of association
Most of the leading Azerbaijani human rights NGOs were unable to resume their work following the freezing of their assets and ongoing harassment of their members, including criminal prosecution. Several NGO leaders convicted of trumped-up charges remained in prison; others were forced into exile for fear of persecution.
Early in the year, the government unfroze the bank accounts of eight NGOs involved in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international group promoting open and accountable management of extractive resources. The decision came after the EITI downgraded Azerbaijan’s membership to a Candidate country in 2015 due to the government crackdown on civil society.
Freedom of assembly
Police continued to suppress and disperse peaceful protests using excessive force.
During nationwide demonstrations in January, in at least two instances police used excessive force to disperse a peaceful crowd and arrested scores of peaceful demonstrators. Across the country, the authorities also summoned for questioning and arrested a number of political activists, accusing them of organizing the protests.
The Constitutional amendments introduced following the September referendum granted the government even more power to restrict the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. The amendments limited property rights and allowed the restriction of freedom of assembly if it breached “public morals”.
Torture and other ill-treatment
Law enforcement officials continued to commit torture and other ill-treatment with impunity.
Human rights defenders reported torture and other ill-treatment of members of the Muslim Unity movement who had been arrested during clashes with government security forces in the village of Nardaran in 2015. Muslim Unity activists were accused of trying to forcibly change the constitutional system and to create an organized armed group.
The youth activists Bayram Mammadov and Giyas Ibrahimov reported that they were tortured and otherwise ill-treated in detention. Injuries consistent with their allegations were confirmed by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention after visiting the activists in detention. Their findings were ignored by judges during remand and case hearings. Another youth activist, Elgiz Gahraman, told his lawyer he had been subject to torture following his arrest on 12 August. He was held incommunicado for 48 hours and forced to “confess” to charges of drug possession. At the end of the year he remained in detention with his trial pending.
Four days of armed clashes between government forces and the forces of the self-declared Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh took place in April. Azerbaijan reported the deaths of six civilians and 31 military personnel; the Armenian Ministry of Defence reported 93 persons killed on its side, including four civilians. The two parties accused each other of under-reporting military casualties and over-reporting civilian casualties. Both sides reportedly targeted civilian properties, including schools.