Amnesty International have been forced to cancel a planned visit to Azerbaijan after being told by the government at the last minute that the mission should be postponed until after the European Games.
The visit, which was intended to launch a briefing – Azerbaijan: the Repression Games. The voices you won’t hear at the first European Games – was cancelled after communication was received late yesterday afternoon from the Azerbaijan Embassy in London stating that “Azerbaijan is not in a position to welcome the Amnesty mission to Baku at the present time” and suggesting that any visit should be postponed until after the Games.
“It is deeply ironic that the launch of a briefing outlining how critical voices in the country have been systematically silenced ahead of the European Games cannot be held. But rather than bury this message, the actions of the authorities have only highlighted their desperate attempts to create a criticism-free zone around the Games,” said Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia.
“Far from advancing the goals of press freedom and human dignity enshrined in the Olympic Charter, the legacy of these games will be to further encourage repressive authorities around the world to view major international sporting events as a ticket to international prestige and respectability.”
The briefing details how over the last year Azerbaijani journalists, human rights defenders, opposition members and pro-democracy youth activists have been harassed, arrested, jailed, attacked and tortured in a crackdown on dissent that has intensified as the Games approached. The systematic dismantling of civil society ahead of the European Games has seriously undermined any hope for a positive lasting legacy of the event.
There are at least 20 prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan, detained solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression. Some of them have been charged with fraud and tax evasion following the introduction of restrictive new laws on NGO funding and registration in 2013. Others are facing spurious charges ranging from drugs possession and hooliganism to treason.
Many other activists and campaigners have fled the country, while those who remain are often too fearful to speak out against abuses committed by the authorities because of threats to themselves or their families.
Independent media is now almost non-existent, while newspapers and television stations owned or controlled by the government are used to smear critics. This allows abuses by the authorities to go unchecked.
Last summer the Azerbaijani authorities embarked on a particularly aggressive roundup of prominent government critics, who were arrested and held in pre-trial detention. In the last two months, as the start of the European Games approached, some have had their pre-trial detention extended, others have been sentenced to lengthy jail terms.
Rasul Jafarov, founder of the NGO, Human Rights Club, was arrested in August last year. He had been planning a ‘Sport for Democracy’ campaign to draw international attention to the deteriorating human rights situation in the country. In April, he was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison on trumped-up charges of tax evasion and illegal business dealings.
Leyla Yunus, a 60-year-old award-winning human rights activist and one of the most outspoken and high-profile critics of the government, was arrested last July – a few days after calling for a boycott of the European Games because of Azerbaijan’s dire human rights record. She has been in pre-trial detention ever since, with the term recently being extended until after the Games. She will have spent a year behind bars without trial. Her husband Arif Yunus was arrested five days later. Both are being held on trumped-up charges of treason, conducting illegal business, tax evasion, abuse of authority, fraud and forgery. Leyla and her husband suffer serious health problems and have been banned from speaking to each other and to family members.
Intigam Aliyev, a prominent human rights lawyer who has successfully taken a number of cases against Azerbaijan to the European Court of Human Rights, was arrested in July last year on trumped-up charges of tax evasion and illegal business dealings. He was detained until his trial in April this year, at which he was given a seven-and-a-half year sentence.
Press freedomIn July last year, the Azerbaijani authorities froze the assets of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, an NGO that had been at the forefront of defending press freedom since 2006. Its office was raided, prosecutors confiscated documents and equipment, and it has been closed ever since. Staff, including director Emin Huseynov, were interrogated. When criminal charges of tax evasion and illegal business dealings were brought against Huseynov, he fled to the Swiss embassy. The embassy has offered him humanitarian protection status and since last August he has been staying there. He believes, if he leaves, he believes will be arrested immediately.
In December last year, the Baku offices of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty were raided and sealed off by members of the Prosecutor’s Office. No official explanation was given, yet documents and equipment were confiscated, 12 employees were detained and questioned, and only released after signing a gagging order.
Khadija Ismayilova, a journalist working for Radio Free Europe, had been investigating claims of links between President Ilham Aliyev’s family and a lucrative construction project in Baku when she was arrested, in December last year. She was accused of “inciting a colleague to commit suicide”, as well as other politically-motivated charges. The colleague in question later admitted that he had been forced to file a complaint against her and that his suicide attempt had nothing to do with Ismayilova. She has faced continuous harassment from the authorities over the years, and now faces 12 years in prison if found guilty of all the charges.
Youth activistsThe briefing also shows that Azerbaijan is a dangerous place for pro-democracy youth. Young people from the well-known NIDA movement who use Facebook to criticise or question the authorities or organise peaceful assemblies, have been arrested and charged with possessing explosives and intending to cause public disorder. Amnesty International believes these charges are fabricated. NIDA members have been beaten and tortured in order to extract false confessions. One 17-year-old activist, Shahin Novruzlu, lost four of his front teeth during interrogation.
“There is a reign of terror – everybody is afraid…Attacks on NIDA have sent a strong message to other activists – if the government can break NIDA, a group of educated and intelligent youth, they can do anything to anybody who dares to speak out,” said Turgut Gambar, a NIDA board member.
Amnesty International are calling on the Azerbaijani government to release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally and to fully respect freedom of expression, association and assembly. The international community including governments and the European Olympic Committee should put pressure on Azerbaijani authorities to do so.
“Azerbaijan’s hosting of these Games provided a rare opportunity to secure improvements in the country’s human rights record. But the failure of the European Olympic Committee and the international community to speak up for those trying to speak out, has allowed the Azerbaijani authorities to progressively squeeze the life out of independent, critical civil society,” said Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia.
Four Amnesty International delegates were due to fly to Baku on the morning of 10 June. Notice of their visit had been submitted to the Azerbaijani authorities by Amnesty International on 1 June. The refusal was only sent late in the afternoon of 9 June.
The European Games which run from 12 – 28 June are regulated by the European Olympic Committee and will see Baku host an estimated 6,000 athletes from 50 countries participating in 20 sports. The event has reportedly cost £6.5 billion GBP/ $10 billion USD.
The briefing is based on a visit to Azerbaijan by Amnesty International researchers in March 2015.