Human rights in Azerbaijan
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Despite being a member of such bodies as the Human Rights Council and Council of Europe, several independent bodies, such as Human Rights Watch, have repeatedly criticized the Azerbaijani government for its human rights record. Among other concerns, authorities have been accused of arbitrary arrests, indefinite detentions, severe beatings, torture, and forced disappearances. Despite the existence of independent news outlets, journalists who criticize the government are often severely harassed, imprisoned, and even physically assaulted. In the 2013-14 Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, Azerbaijan ranked 160th out of an overall total of 180 nations. President Ilham Aliyev, inherited power from his late father Heydar Aliyev, who maintained an extensive cult of personality. Ilham Aliyev has often been criticized for failing to improve the situation of civil liberties from his father's policies. Public demonstrations against the ruling regime are not tolerated, and authorities often use violence to disperse protests. Since the Aliyev family first took charge in 1993, Azerbaijan has not had a single election deemed "free and fair" by international observers.
Corruption is considered to be endemic in all areas of Azerbaijani politics. The ruling family has aroused suspicion from various independent media outlets for their vast wealth, as evidenced by the purchasing of extensive multimillion-dollar properties in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Although Azerbaijan is nominally a representative democracy, recent elections there have widely been contested as fraudulent and 'seriously flawed.' Azerbaijani media coverage of the election is considered to be overwhelmingly biased in favor of the administration. Also, former President, Heidar Aliyev, is known to have filled the Central and Local electoral commissions with government supporters prior to various key elections since 2003. Azerbaijani non-governmental bodies were also banned from monitoring the vote. Irregular incidents such as voting chiefs running off with the ballots, ballot stuffing, multiple voting, and vote-tampering were recorded by international monitors.
During the 2013 election, an official smartphone app run by the Central Election Commission inadvertently released final election results, a day before voting locations had opened. The results showed Ilham Aliyev having won with 72.76% of the recorded votes, while the nearest opposing candidate, Jamil Hasanli, tallied just 7.4%. The data was recalled, with an official claim is that the app's developer had mistakenly tested the app with 2008 election results, but the data released did not match the voter totals, nor the winning percentages of the 2008 election.
On 10 October Hasanli called for the results to be annulled due to vote-rigging, claiming the elections were not free and fair because of electoral fraud and government control of all television channels.
Azerbaijan has been harshly criticized for bribing members and officials from international organizations to legitimize the fraudulent elections, a practice which has been termed as "caviar diplomacy". Recently this has been the case with MEPs of the European Parliament, whose positive assessment of Azerbaijani elections sparked a major scandal in Europe. European Stability Initiative (ESI) think tank has published a series of detailed reports exposing the vested interest of the observation missions participating in Azerbaijani elections.
Freedom of assembly and expression of political beliefs
Up until June 2005, the Azerbaijani people did not enjoy freedom of assembly. The blanket ban on opposition gatherings was lifted after national pressure, but events leading up to parliamentary elections later that year proved this to be merely a nominal change for a very short time. The authorities denied opposition supporters the right to demonstrate or hold rallies in or near any city centres. Those attending opposition rallies that had not been sanctioned by the government were beaten and arrested en masse. Police were known to detain opposition activists, in an attempt to 'convince' them into giving up their political work. Youth movement members and opposition members were detained for conspiring to overthrow the government, a charge that has not been substantiated. After the elections not a single opposition rally was allowed.
According to the Human Rights Watch 2013 report, "Azerbaijan’s record on freedom of expression, assembly, and association has been on a steady decline for some years, but it has seen a dramatic deterioration since mid-2012". In April 2014 RPT-European human rights organization reported that human rights, particularly freedom of expression, assembly and association, are deteriorating in Azerbaijan.
In Azerbaijan, torture, police abuse, and excessive use of force are rife. Defendants are often subjected to severe beating to try to coerce a confession, although electric shock, threats of rape, and threats against members of the defendant's family are also used as torture. Torture is less prevalent in post-detention prison facilities, although former inmates have alleged that security forces beat hundreds of prisoners by forcing them to run through a gauntlet, whereby they were beaten with batons. The government have taken no action against torture, or against officials who partake in torture; indeed, Vilayat Eyvazov, the head of the Organized Crime Unit, was named Deputy Interior Minister in 2005.
International pressure has been exerted on Azerbaijan to release its number of political prisoners. Since joining the Council of Europe, the Azerbaijani government have released one hundred political prisoners, but many remain in custody, and opposition supporters continue to be detained without proof of wrongdoing. A number of Talysh national minority activists including Novruzali Mammadov, Atakhan Abilov, Alikram Hummatov are recognized as political prisoners or refugees by the international organizations.
In March 2011, opposition activists Bakhtiyar Hajiyev and Jabbar Savalan were arrested after they helped to organize Arab Spring-style protests through Facebook. Both were given prison terms on unrelated charges. Their arrests were protested by the European Parliament, Human Rights Watch, and Index on Censorship. Amnesty International named both men prisoners of conscience and called for their immediate release. Jabbar Savalan was released from prison after 11 months on 26 December 2011. In April 2012, human rights and environmental activist Ogtay Gulaliyev was arrested and allegedly tortured; he was released in June. Later on in 2013, seven young activists, including four board members, of Nida Civic Movement were kidnapped and arrested after the protests held against the non-combat military deaths in March and April in Baku. They are charged with preparing the riots during the protests in Baku. Initially, the young people were charged with illegal possession of weapons and drugs. As reported by International human rights organization Amnesty International, some of the eight activists of NIDA, who were arrested on false charges (including 17-year-old Shahin Novruzlu), were tortured. Amnesty International recognized all the arrested young men as prisoners of conscience.
Freedom of the media
Azerbaijan is ranked 'Not Free' by Freedom House in its annual Freedom of the Press survey with a score of 79 out of 100. The three broadcasting stations BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America, which were the only ones that ensured political pluralism for its citizens, are banned in Azerbaijan since 2009.
The authorities use a range of measures to restrict freedom of the media within the country. Opposition and independent media outlets and journalists have their access to print-houses and distribution networks limited, or can find themselves facing defamation charges and crippling fines and are subject to intimidation tactics, including imprisonment on fabricated charges.
Most Azerbaijanis receive their information from mainstream television, which is unswervingly pro-government and under strict government control. According to a 2012 report of the NGO "Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS)" Azerbaijani citizens are unable to access objective and reliable news on human rights issues relevant to Azerbaijan and the population is under-informed about matters of public interest.
Azerbaijani authorities have imprisoned several notable journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists has stated the charges against many journalists are "fabricated" and "politicized". At the end of 2014, eight journalists remained behind bars. International instances such as the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe have consistently refuted the justifications by the Azerbaijani authorities that jailed journalists had been prosecuted and sentenced for common crimes. Prison conditions for journalists are reported as dire, with routine ill-treatment and denial of medical care. More than 10 journalists remain in jail in Azerbaijan by the end of 2015. They include:
- Khadija Ismayilova, a reporter for Radio Azadliq, on charges of inciting a person to commit suicide, illegal business dealings and abuse of power;
- Rasul Jafarov, a free expression and free media advocate and human rights defender, on charges of embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, abuse of power;
- Seymur Hazi, a columnist for the newspaper Azadliq, on a charge of hooliganism;
- Omar Mamedov and Abdul Abilov, bloggers, on charges of illegal storage and sale of drugs;
- Parviz Hashimli, a journalist, on charges of smuggling and illegal storage and sale of firearms;
- Nijat Aliyev, editor-in-chief of the azadxeber.az news website, on various charges, including drug possession and inciting hatred;
- Rashad Ramazanov, an independent blogger, on charges of illegal storage and sale of drugs.
According to Human Rights Watch, beginning in 2008, as part of the urban renewal campaign in Baku, thousands of homeowners were evicted from their houses in many parts of the city to make way for parks, business centres and elite residential areas. The process was engineered by the Mayoralty of Baku and was often carried out without proper warning. The compensations offered were well below the market value. The residents also felt they had few options to win a case in court if they filed a lawsuit. In some cases, demolitions continued regardless of court orders prohibition to do so. Forced evictions worsened in 2011, after Azerbaijan won the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest, and with it, the right to host the 2012 one. These evictions angered many people, and were well exposed in the press, after hundreds were turfed out for Crystal Hall to be built.
According to the head of the Institute of Peace and Democracy Leyla Yunus, 60,000 people were deprived of their property contrary to the Constitution of Azerbaijan between 2009 and 2012. She expressed doubts in this problem ever being solved as "mafia stands behind this whole activity." In her opinion, the number of instances of illegal property deprivation is so high that civilians cannot keep up with the record, and the process is likely to follow the model of the 1920s Soviet nationalization policy.
2011 European Parliament resolution
On 12 May 2011, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning Azerbaijani "human rights violations" and "oppression of opposition forces". The resolution mentioned concern for Eynulla Fatullayev, Jabbar Savalan, and other prisoners by name, as well as general concern for the "increasing number of incidents of harassment, attacks and violence against civil society and social network activists and journalists in Azerbaijan".
Situation in Nakhchivan
Human rights are considered exceptionally poor in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, dubbed "Azerbaijan's North Korea" by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in 2007. An autonomous republic under the governorship of Vasif Talibov, concerns have been raised regarding police brutality, impunity, extensive limitations on civil liberties, and corruption.
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During the year there were at least two reports of politically motivated kidnappings. On March 6 unknown assailants kidnapped opposition newspaper journalist Fikret Huseynli and on September 30 the father of Eynulla Fatullayev, founder of Azerbaijan's most widely read weekly newsmagazine.
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Opposition leaders… abided by these restrictions when they organized peaceful protests outside of Baku shortly after the November 2005 elections, which drew 20,000 and later 30,000 people. However, participants in authorized demonstrations also suffered intimidation and, on occasion, beatings and detention, as on November 26, 2005, when Lala Shovket and Ali Karimli called on citizens at an approved time period. This demonstration was brutally repressed by the police, and numerous demonstrators were injured.
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While a few Azerbaijani clans are getting richer and richer, thanks to all the dollars pouring into the country, the rest of the population is barely scraping by. Over 40 percent of the country's inhabitants are living in poverty; the average monthly income is just €24. As Lala Shevkat, the leader of the Liberal Party of Azerbaijan, says: 'Oil is our tragedy.'
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