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Azerbaijan: External Scrutiny Unwelcome

As the European Games approach, the government tries to accentuate the positive and silence critics.
By Afgan Mukhtarli

As it prepares to host the European Games this summer, Azerbaijan is trying to stifle debate on human rights issues by shutting out critical voices from abroad while clamping down on dissent at home.

The government has invested heavily in the first ever European Games in the hope they will provide a positive spin to its global image. Rights campaigners have used the international spotlight on Azerbaijan to urge participating nations not to ignore the ongoing repression.

“We hope that the leaders of countries participating in the European Games will take the opportunity to condemn the human rights situation in Azerbaijan. That’s why we ask them to formally declare that their participation in the opening ceremony of the games will [only] be possible after the liberation of all political prisoners and human rights defenders,” said a statement from Souhayr Belhassen, head of the Federation of Human Rights Organisations (FIDH).

The response from Azerbaijan has been hostile. In March, the authorities barred an employee of Human Rights Watch from entering the country, detaining him for 31 hours before deporting him. Giorgi Gogia, a veteran human rights worker, was held at Baku airport when he tried to enter the country to attend hearings in cases instituted against two human rights defenders.

“Barring Giorgi Gogia from attending the trial hearings shows just how far Azerbaijan’s authorities have taken their crackdown on human rights,” Hugh Williamson, Human Rights Watch’s director for Europe and Central Asia, said. “They’ve ruthlessly silenced many critical voices inside the country, and now they don’t want to let anyone in to bear witness to what they are doing.”

Foreign ministry spokesman Hikmat Hajiyev said the government was quite within its rights to refuse entry to an individual.

“Matters of entry into the country’s territory, migration and border crossing are governed by the laws of the Republic of Azerbaijan. As a sovereign state, Azerbaijan can refuse entry for a foreign citizen on the basis of its laws,” he said.

It is not first time the Azerbaijani government has refused entry to foreigners.

In May 2014, the authorities withdrew a visa already granted to René Rouquet, head of the French delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. According to the APA news agency, the decision was made because Rouquet had visited Nagorny Karabakh. Although Karabakh has been run by an Armenian administration since the conflict ended in a ceasefire in 1994, it remains part of Azerbaijan’s internationally-recognised territory. Baku has blacklisted people who go to Karabakh without obtaining its permission in advance.

The Switzerland-based Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OMCT) sent a fact-finding mission to Baku in January, but the team was refused permission to meet detained human rights defenders. In a report released on April 21, OMCT said attacks on NGOs and journalists had been stepped up ahead of the June games. (See also Arrests Continue Ahead of Euro-Games.)

Gerald Staberok of the United Nations Committee against Torture, agrees that things are bad.

“Most of the leaders of independent NGOs have been arrested. The conditions of their detention are disgusting, and deterioration of health of some of them, such as Leyla Yunus and Intiqam Aliyev, is a serious concern,” he said.

Leyla Yunus has been in prison since  August 2014 on treason charges which Human Rights Watch describes as “bogus”. On April 22, Aliyev was given a seven-and-a-half year prison sentence for fraud, after a trial he said was politically motivated. (See Azerbaijan Convictions Don't Convince  for more on Aliyev’s conviction.)

Shahvalad Chobanoglu, a prominent journalist who is himself under investigation by the authorities, believes that the authorities are trying to gradually transform Azerbaijan into a country as closed as North Korea.

“All this happens because the authorities feel they have impunity. They are destroying civil society and jailing all their opponents, whether they’re politicians, journalists, human rights defenders. When international organizations criticise them, they deny them entry into the country,” he told IWPR.

The government rejects such allegations, accusing international bodies of making concerted efforts to malign Azerbaijan.

“This campaign of slander will have no effect,” presidential aide Ali Hasanov told APA recently. “The situation with human rights, democracy, and freedom of expression, information and assembly in Azerbaijan today is as good as in any country in the world.”

Hasanov blamed “double standards” and Islamophobia for the criticism of his country. He said this was evident in the actions of European politicians, international organisations and international human rights bodies.

“We think the Azerbaijani public knows perfectly well that these attempts to create a negative perception of Azerbaijan are totally unfounded. Their aim is to diminish the effectiveness of the Azerbaijani state’s achievements and attack the values that we want to show off to the world,” he said.

Oqtay Gulaliyev, head of an NGO called Azerbaijan Without Political Prisoners, told IWPR that the government was damaging its reputation further by refusing entry to internationals and accusing them of prejudice.

“The detention of a Human Rights Watch representative at Baku airport, the unjustified search of him, and his expulsion are unacceptable,” he said. “The government did this because this international organisation often accuses the Baku regime of violating human rights, crushing civil society, and infringing freedom of speech and press freedom, and because it regularly informs the international community about the political prisoners problem.”

“This is not the first such case,” Gulaliyev continued. “It points to the critical state of human rights in Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani government does not want its attacks on civil society, its repression, its crushing of independent media and its detention of innocent people to be criticised by international organizations.”

Elman Fattah, the chairman of a committee set up to defend political prisoner Yadigar Sadiqov, told IWPR that the ban on entry for critics of the regime’s human rights record was down to a direct order by President Ilham Aliyev.

“The authorities are well aware that amid a wave of repression, and given the existence of more than 100 political prisoners, allowing international human rights organisations and journalists to visit Baku and focus global attention on political repression on the eve of the games will result in harsh criticism of the Aliyev regime,” he said. “The government is hoping that it can cut short the criticism through these aggressive methods.”

Afgan Mukhtarli is an Azerbaijani journalist living abroad.


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