The Azerbaijani government has renewed its crackdown on civil society and critics, despite releasing scores of political prisoners earlier this year, human rights watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) wrote in a 75-page report published on October 20. The government has prosecuted more than 20 youth and political activists since January on “a range of spurious charges” which include drug possession, illegal business activity and links to Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, the report claims.
Baku's human rights record has constituted the subject of a great deal of international criticism since 2014, when the government stepped up its crackdown on critics, imprisoning more than 100 opposition politicians, activists and journalists. In April 2015, the country saw its membership in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) downgraded over its human rights violations, which has affected its ability to raise financing for some regional energy schemes, observers claim.
“With the release of some wrongfully imprisoned activists earlier this year, there were high hopes that Azerbaijan was turning a corner,” said Giorgi Gogia, HRW's South Caucasus director and author of the report. “But optimism is fading fast as the government relentlessly pursues critics and tries to shut down independent groups.”
The crackdown was particularly severe in the lead-up to a constitutional referendum in September, which came at the initiative of President Ilham Aliyev and will enable him to expand his powers and control over his succession.
HRW writes that, among those detained this year, were youth activists Giyas Ibrahimov and Bayram Mammadov, who were arrested in May for painting graffiti on a statue of late President Heydar Aliyev, the incumbent's father. Police ordered the men to apologize on camera in exchange for their release. When they refused, police beat them and threatened to rape them. The men finally signed confessions falsely admitting to drug possession and face up to 12 years in prison.
Earlier this year, Baku released some high-profile political prisoners, including journalist Khadija Ismayilova, spouses Leyla and Arif Yunus, human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, and activists Rasul Jafarov and Anar Mammadli. However, they have complained that they are closely monitored and their freedom is restricted, with social media being the only space where they can express their opinions.
In the report, Gogia calls for the international community to sanction Azerbaijan by restricting its access to project financing. “As Azerbaijan looks externally for investment and support, this is an essential moment for Azerbaijan’s partners to link investment and partnership deals to clear rights improvements,” he writes.
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