By Natalia Nozadze, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Azerbaijan
It was a warm and misty afternoon as we flew into Baku’s deceptively modern looking Heydar Aliyev airport which is named, of course, after the president.
The immigration control desks were full of sleepy, relaxed, friendly faces, who were processing the small queue in front of us in a similarly relaxed manner. But their faces changed to confusion when my colleague and I approached the counter. In only a few minutes all the immigration officers from the other counters congregated around us and began making phone calls back and forth. I could hear the words “deport” and “problem” but no one was offering us an explanation.
Finally the head of immigration came over to us and told us that we were barred from entering the country. “I cannot provide you with any explanation, this is what the system tells me,” he simply said, taking our passports and directing us to the waiting area for the next available flight.
As I sat waiting, I found myself thinking about all the people I had arranged to meet with. This time the list was shorter than usual: the few remaining journalists that still dared to report stories critical of the government, the even fewer human rights defenders who are no longer able to conduct their work, and the very few remaining opposition parties which are allowed to exist but aren’t allowed to operate.
For the last five years this list has grown shorter and shorter and Azerbaijan now holds more than 20 people whom Amnesty International regards as prisoners of conscience. They’ve been imprisoned simply for peacefully opposing the government and its policies or for helping the victims of human rights violations. All the NGOs that worked on human rights, about 20 of them, have also been shut down. Some of their leaders have been arrested or had to flee the country whilst others watched as their offices were sealed and their bank accounts frozen. Independent journalists and activists shared the same fate.
Opposition parties have been dismantled after constant harassment, threats and the arrests of their leaders and they’ve been effectively removed from public visibility and from political life. Thrown out of their offices, they are unable to hire venues or hold public meetings or convey their messages to the public and their constituents. They have disappeared from mainstream media, TV and radio, which won’t give them air time. Meanwhile young people who challenge the government on social media, and indeed anyone who challenges the government in any public forum, find themselves receiving unwanted attention from the authorities.
Having effectively silenced all the critical voices at home, the government has also closed its doors to international human rights organizations. The ban on Amnesty International is one of the most recent steps Azerbaijan has taken to limit international scrutiny. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe cancelled its mission to monitor November’s presidential election stating that too many restrictions had been imposed on them. In September Azerbaijan cancelled a visit by the European Commission after the European Parliament called on the government to free imprisoned human rights defenders.
The international community has rarely responded to the severe deterioration of human rights in Azerbaijan over the past few years. Sadly Azerbaijan has been allowed to get away with unprecedented levels of repression and in the process almost wipe out its civil society.