Azerbaijan cracks down on opposition activists ahead of September referendum, warn human rights watchers

By bne IntelliNews August 18, 2016

Azerbaijan's authorities have arrested a number of activists in recent days, Oslo-based watchdog Human Rights House Network (HRHN) said on August 16 urging Baku to refrain from intimidating the opposition in the run up to a referendum that is expected to expand the president's powers and set the stage for a dynastic presidency.

Along with extending the presidential term from five to seven years, proposed changes that will be voted at the referendum are related to restrictions in the right to freedom of assembly, which would be contingent on "public order and morality"; and the right to property, which could be restricted in the interests of "social justice and effective land use” HRHN said in a statement on its website. 

“Everyone should be allowed to freely and safely express their opinion during a campaign – the right to participate in public life includes disagreeing with the government’s proposal," Ane Bonde, HRHF’s Regional Manager for Eastern Europe and Caucasus. said. "A popular referendum, in particular, should be an opportunity for true public debate on the future of the State’s institutions. Instead, we fear that we are now seeing the beginning of a new wave in the crackdown on civil society and opposition in direct relation to the referendum.” 

In the last two weeks, several activists, including Natig Jafarli, Elshan Gasimov, Togrul Ismayilov, Bakhtiyar Hajiyev and Elgiz Qahreman, were arrested. All of them have suffered from persecution at the hands of authorities on previous occasions. One of the leaders of the opposition Real movement, Jafarli was arrested on August 12 for criticising and campaigning against the referendum. A Baku court charged him with illegal business and abuse of official powers, which in Azerbaijan are standard charges against government critics.

Ismayilov and Gasimov are also members of the Real movement, and were arrested by "persons with civilian clothing" according to Turan news agency. Meanwhile, Hajiyev was arrested on August 15 for disorderly conduct after a traffic police officer reportedly attacked him. Qahreman, a leader of the opposition Nida Youth Movement, had been missing for four days before he revealed that he was in detention at the Anti-Organised Crime Department. He has reportedly been sentenced to a four-month pre-trial detention, and is facing up to 12 years behind bars for drug charges.

In a separate case that nevertheless is indicative of the lack of transparency in Azerbaijan, the former chairman of the country's largest bank International Bank of Azerbaijan (IBA), who is currently on trial under accusations of misappropriation and abuse of office after the government had to bail IBA out, called for Finance Minister Samir Sharifov to give a deposition in his trial. Ex-chairman Jahangir Hajiyev is denying the accusations, calling the investigation incompetent and biased, and threatened that "if I would say more, [Sharifov] would be here in jail with me".

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