Dispatch from Baku: Azerbaijan spring yet to blossom

By Max Tucker, Amnesty International’s Azerbaijan campaigner

Without international pressure, the future looks bleak for freedom of expression in Azerbaijan

Flying into Baku on Tuesday morning it was hard not to feel uneasy. It doesn’t help to arrive at 5am in the freezing Azeri winter, but each journey from Heydar Aliyev airport, down Heydar Aliyev Prospect, past the Heydar Aliyev statues and posters to Baku city centre instils in me a sense of foreboding.

Last time we were in Azerbaijan, in March, our cameraman was called in for questioning by the police, our driver’s car was mysteriously towed, and the partner NGO who invited us was later shut down by the Ministry of Justice. Perhaps this had nothing to do with our visit, but it’s easy to become suspicious in a country where the government tightly controls everything – from who gets elected to parliament to what gets aired on TV.

“Azerbaijan is in a situation where popular media is not free – no TV station is giving out information about anything happening that doesn’t go together with the official strategy of the government”, Adnan Hajizade, a former prisoner of conscience told me during our previous visit.

On entering the city, you can smell petrol in the Baku air and see the petrodollars pouring into enormous construction projects that dominate the Baku skyline. New apartment blocks stand desolate, still waiting for inhabitants who can actually afford to live in them.

Across town families are being evicted and their houses destroyed to make way for a new park built in honour of… Heydar Aliyev, former president and late father of current president Ilham Aliyev. Ilham is now able to rule for life, having abolished presidential term limits in 2009.

The task in hand

We’re in Baku to publish our conclusions on the series of “Arab Spring”- inspired protests that flared up briefly in March and April, before being heavily suppressed by the authorities.

During our last visit we watched demonstrators being punched, kicked and bundled into police vans simply for shouting “freedom!” on the streets of Baku. In April it got much worse – police met protestors armed with batons, riot shields and rubber bullets, beating them and arresting over 150, 13 of whom are now serving long prison sentences.

Amazingly, we’re joined at the press conference by former prisoner of conscience Eynulla Fatullayev, a journalist imprisoned in 2007 but released in May this year after a four year Amnesty campaign on his behalf, and despite the Azerbaijani government’s initial refusal to comply with a European Court ruling ordering his release.

Also present is Adnan Hajizade, of “donkey blog” fame, whose early release serves to demonstrate the potential effect of international pressure.

But today Amnesty International counts 17 prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan who were not at liberty to join us. Their families and friends came to ask what Amnesty would do to help. Among them was Teravet Aliyeva, the mother of Jabbar Savalan, who is hoping against hope that his ongoing court appeal will bring him home.

Next steps

The truth is that while The spring that never blossomed: freedoms suppressed in Azerbaijan, makes numerous recommendations to the Azerbaijani authorities on how to protect the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and association, their refusal to meet with us this week is indicative of their lack of desire to do so.

Today we met with some of the most influential foreign diplomats in Azerbaijan, and asked them to urge the authorities to release these 17 prisoners of conscience. We’re hoping that their governments’ interests in Azerbaijani oil and gas will not prevent them from doing so. And we’re asking Amnesty International activists to ensure that it does not.

How you can helpTake Action Now and sign the petition