A woman walks past a poster informing on the upcoming snap presidential election in Baku

Azerbaijan: Repression escalating ahead of presidential elections

Ahead of Azerbaijan’s early presidential election on 7 February, Amnesty International draws urgent attention to the authorities’ latest crackdown on the right to freedom of expression, including the targeting of critical voices by Ilham Aliyev, the incumbent head of state.

“The escalating crackdown by Azerbaijani authorities ahead of the elections is not just an attack on individual rights, it’s a widespread, coordinated assault on civil society and the rule of law. The authorities are casting their nets wide and are not shying away from vengeful acts of reprisals, including harassing, intimidating, and threatening the families of those who have already been unfairly imprisoned following politically motivated trials. By targeting the relatives of state critics and freezing their assets, the authorities are effectively escalating their persecution to collective punishment. This travesty of justice must stop,” said Natalia Nozadze, Amnesty International’s South Caucasus Researcher.

By targeting the relatives of state critics and freezing their assets, the authorities are effectively escalating their persecution to collective punishment

Natalia Nozadze, Amnesty International’s South Caucasus Researcher

Intensified repression of peaceful dissent

Since November 2023, the Azerbaijani authorities have stepped up their repression of peaceful dissent, resulting in the arrests of more than 13 individuals, including journalists, political opponents, and a human rights defender. Of these individuals, at least 11 remain in arbitrary detention on spurious charges. Many more dissenting voices, including journalists, have fled the country fearing prosecution.

Targeting relatives of state critics

Following the arrest of state critics, the government proceeded to target their families and relatives. In the disturbing case of the independent media outlet Abzas, which investigated allegations of government corruption, not only were several staff arrested, but their families have also been systematically targeted. Authorities have misused the criminal justice system to freeze the bank accounts of family members of critics and activists, barring them from accessing their salaries, pensions, and other financial assets. This tactic has left many individuals, including elderly people and those with serious health conditions, in dire financial situations.

  • Ofelya Maharramova, the mother of Abzas media’s imprisoned chief editor Sevinj Vagifgizi, said she was unable to afford essential medication due to the freezing of her pension and health/disability benefits.
  • The families of Ulvi Hasanli, Abzas media director, and Aziz Orujov, head of the internet news channel Kanal13, face severe financial hardship as their main sources of income have been blocked, in apparent retaliation for their relatives’ journalistic activities.

Defence lawyers assert that there is no legal basis for these attacks, intimidation, and harassment of family members. According to the lawyers there are no legal grounds for freezing the assets of family members as they are not suspects in legal proceedings and there are no questions regarding the legitimacy of their funds. The tactic of freezing assets represents a form of collective punishment, aiming to send a chilling message and silence not only critics of the government, but also their families and associates.

International concern

This pattern of repression and persecution is in direct violation of Azerbaijan’s international human rights obligations. A preliminary report by the OSCE has expressed concern regarding measures used to curtail media freedom and undermine journalists’ work, including the growing number of detentions of independent journalists.

According to local NGOs and human rights defenders, more than 200 individuals remain in detention or prison as a result of politically motivated prosecutions. In July 2023, the prominent economist and political activist Gubad Ibadoghlu was arrested on trumped-up charges of counterfeiting money.

Politically motivated prosecutions and a worsening human rights human rights record were the main reasons behind the Parliament Assembly of the Council of Europe’s (PACE) January 2023 decision to refuse to ratify the credentials of the Azerbaijani delegation. In response, Azerbaijan chose to suspend its cooperation with the PACE, underscoring the country’s disregard for international human rights obligations. Despite these tensions, Azerbaijan was selected to host COP29 this year.

Amnesty International urges the Azerbaijani authorities to immediately cease the persecution of independent journalists, activists, political opponents, human rights defenders, and their families. The organization calls for the immediate release of those detained or imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their human rights, the restoration of their human rights, and an end to the retaliatory tactics employed as a means of oppression. All those who have suffered human rights violations should be provided with access to justice and effective remedies including full and adequate reparations. All those suspected of being responsible for these violations must be brought to justice in fair trial proceedings. Authorities must respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights of everyone in the country.