Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

As Azerbaijan Hosts Euro-Games, Rights Defender Runs for Freedom

OSCE politician says it’s a “sad day” when a civil society leader is forced out by his government.
By Nurgul Novruz
  • Emin Huseynov. (Photo courtesy of Mehman Huseynov)
    Emin Huseynov. (Photo courtesy of Mehman Huseynov)

After allowing human rights defender Emin Huseynov to leave the country, the Azerbaijani government tried to make the best of things by saying it let him go for humanitarian reasons.

 Huseynov, a journalist and the director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), had been holed up in the Swiss embassy in Baku since August 2014, although his presence there was only made public this February. He took refuge in the embassy after the Azerbaijani authorities froze his organisation’s bank accounts, searched its offices, and seized equipment and documents.

Late on June 11, Huseynov was spirited out of Baku on the plane of Swiss foreign minister Didier Burkhalter, who was in town to attend the opening of the first ever European Games.

The government had hoped the sporting event would improve its international reputation, but it attracted more attention to Azerbaijan’s human rights record by imposing entry bans on Amnesty International and a Guardian journalist hoping to cover the games. 

The Swiss authorities had been in negotiations with the Azerbaijani counterparts for some time, but the latter initially sent out confused messages about the circumstances in which Huseynov was got out of the country.

Siyavush Novruzov, a parliamentarian from the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party, claimed that Huseynov had been taken out of the country illegally. He told the Report.az news agency that Huseynov must still stand trial for failing to pay taxes, and claimed he had spent the money on “anti-government work and recruiting people to take part in mass unrest”.

“If an individual involved in economic crime is held in an embassy building, that means other interests are in play here,” Novruzov added.

On June 17 however, a report on the Virtual Azerbaycan website cited law-enforcement sources as saying Huseynov had left under an arrangement agreed with the government. The source said he paid the full amount of taxes he was accused of evading, and the arrest warrant against him had been dropped on humanitarian grounds.

The same source said that Huseynov had “requested” to be stripped of Azerbaijani citizenship, and the authorities had approved this.

Huseynov is now in Bern, and although he has not spoken to the media, he has been in contact with his family.

His brother Mehman Huseynov said Emin was undergoing treatment for health problems caused by police beatings in 2003 and 2008, as his condition had worsened while in hiding.

“My brother was effectively driven out of the country. Fabricated criminal charges were brought against him because of his human rights work,” he said.

Mehman Huseynov said both he and his parents were harassed and interrogated while his brother was in the embassy.

“I hope they will return my passport and issue me with ID so that we can travel and see my brother, otherwise they will be holding us here as hostages,” he added.

Huseynov’s release was welcomed by the United States government and by institutions including the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSC), of which Azerbaijan is a member. The chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s committee on democracy and human rights, Isabel Santos, welcomed the safe passage granted to Huseynov and praised Switzerland for its “determination” in securing it.

“But it is also a sad day when a civil society leader is forced by his own country’s authorities to flee. I hope this is not a mere gesture by the government of Azerbaijan on the occasion of the European Games that it is hosting, but the start of an urgently needed, fundamental reversal of its record on human rights,” Santos said. “Azerbaijan must immediately begin taking its OSCE commitments seriously, and should start by releasing all prisoners of conscience and political prisoners currently being held, including Intiqam Aliyev, Khadija Ismayilova, Rasul Jafarov, Anar Mammadli and Leyla Yunus.”

In Baku, human rights defenders were left to mull over the circumstances in which Huseynov was allowed to leave Azerbaijan.

“Saying that Emin was taken to Switzerland secretly is complete nonsense,” Mirvari Qahramanli, head of the Organisation for Protecting Oil Workers' Rights, said. “Switzerland was one of the principal European countries to be represented by its foreign minister at the opening of the European Games. That was clearly the deal – Switzerland would send a minister to the ceremony, adding gravity to it, and the Azerbaijani authorities would let Emin go. It’s no secret that the opening of the European Games caused levity when leading European heads of state didn’t attend.”

While Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro sent presidents or prime ministers to the ceremony, other European states were notably absent at this or lower ministerial levels.

Natiq Adilov, a journalist and member of the opposition Popular Front party, focused on reports that Huseynov had been stripped of his citizenship.

“It’s obvious that one of the conditions for releasing Emin Huseynov was that he should renounce citizenship,” he said. “In correcting one action, the authorities perpetrated another. It’s a grave breach of his rights.”

Nurgul Novruz is the pseudonym of an Azerbaijani journalist.