As international scrutiny fades, Azerbaijan scrambles to silence critics

Civil society is under attack at unprecedented levels, as Azerbaijan wages a vicious campaign to silence its critics.

Akram Aylisli
The president of Azerbaijan stripped author Akram Aylisli of his pension and his title of 'People's Author' after the publication of 'Stone Dreams', a novel covering the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict [AP]

While the international community continues to engage in business as usual with oil-rich Azerbaijan, the country is quickly losing claim to any remaining pretence that it is a democracy. Azerbaijani civil society is under attack at unprecedented levels, as the government wages a vicious campaign to silence its critics. 

In particular, the Azerbaijani authorities seem intent on punishing those who exposed human rights problems in the country during the period of increased international media attention ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest and Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which took place in Baku in May 2012 and November 2012, respectively. Rights groups warned of potential retaliation once this attention had faded. They turned out to be right. 

Over the past few months, the Azerbaijani authorities have been scrambling to silence all critical voices in the country – including mine. In a highly unusual move, in December, the authorities revoked my residence permit while I was travelling outside of the country, preventing me from returning to my home in Baku and effectively separating my family ever since. No official explanation has been given, but diplomatic negotiations confirmed that the action was politically motivated. I was offered a deal that later fell through – that I could return to the country only if I agreed to stop my human rights activism. 

No freedom of expression

What triggered this move? In the run-up to Eurovision and the IGF, I worked with a wide range of international and local human rights organisations that were publically critical of Azerbaijan’s record on issues such as freedom of expression and internet freedom, including through two reports that were banned from being distributed at the IGF. But my work with a new local campaign, Art for Democracy, which had launched just a week earlier in a December 11 event, seems to have been the clincher. 

Art for Democracy seeks to use all forms of artistic expression to promote human rights and democracy in the country. It builds upon the previous Sing for Democracy campaign, which was active ahead of Eurovision. The pro-government media has attacked the campaign and its supporters – including the governments of the US, the UK, France and Germany – as being “anti-nationalist” and attempting to “sabotage” Azerbaijan.

Besides revoking my residence permit, authorities subjected the campaign’s staff and supporters to a number of other forms of pressure following the launch event. 

But my case was only the tip of the iceberg. Since December, the human rights situation in the country has deteriorated at an alarming rate. In January, authorities responded to an unrelated series of anti-government protests in Baku and other regions with violence and arrested scores of protesters, ordering many to pay steep fines and detaining others for up to 15 days. Court officials have begun seizing property from activists – and illegally, from some of their family members – who have refused to pay these fines.

 In Azerbaijan, pro-democracy advocates
face major challenges

At the same time, authorities appeared to support protests against the author Akram Aylisli following his publication of Stone Dreams, a novel covering the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from a perspective his critics allege is sympathetic to Armenia. Pro-government groups held pickets in February calling Aylisli a traitor and burning his book.

President Aliyev stripped Aylisli of his pension and his title of “People’s Author”, and he was expelled from the Union of Azerbaijani Writers. In a particularly savage move, the head of a small pro-government party offered 10,000 AZN (US$12,700) to anyone who would cut off Aylisli’s ear. 

Authorities have also started taking steps to eliminate any chance of a free and fair presidential election in October. Republicanist Alternative (REAL) movement presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov is in pre-trial detention, facing up to 10 years imprisonment on politically motivated charges of organising mass disorder and violently resisting police. He was arrested on February 4 after he travelled to the Ismayil region a day after local residents began protesting, demanding the resignation of the local mayor in January.

Musavat party presidential candidate Isa Gambar’s car was attacked and nine of his party members were injured in an ambush when attempting to travel to the Lankaran region to campaign on January 13. 

Where is media freedom?

Local groups have reported that internet freedom has deteriorated in the months following the IGF. In addition, the already dire media freedom situation in the country has worsened significantly as authorities continue to detain critical journalists and exert other forms of pressure against the independent media.

Leading opposition newspaper Azadliq has been a particular target, being subjected to a string of defamation lawsuits filed by public officials and those close to them, including one upheld by the Supreme Court on February 19 ordering damages of 62,000 AZN ($79,000). 

Further, the Azerbaijani parliament has been busy adopting regressive legislation. If signed into law by President Aliyev, amendments to law on grants, the law on NGOs and the law on freedom of religion would restrict the ability of independent NGOs to operate and would make it easy for the government to quickly close them down.

Authorities have been taking other steps to interfere with the activities of independent NGOs throughout the country, such as shutting down a February 12 workshop on civic participation in the Khachmaz region and detaining two of the trainers. 

Despite this rapid deterioration, the international community has hardly taken note. The support promised to Azerbaijani activists by IGF participants has certainly been lacking. Even worse, European politicians directly contributed to the downward spiral by failing to support a resolution on political prisoners in Azerbaijan in a January 23 vote at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe – a move that the Azerbaijani authorities clearly interpreted as carte blanche to continue arresting persons for politically motivated reasons.

To top it all, as recently as February 20, the European Union enhanced a Memorandum of Understanding on Energy with Azerbaijan, signalling once again that in realpolitik, oil trumps human rights. 

Whatever is left of the facade of Azerbaijani democracy is certainly wearing thin. There is an urgent need for increased international pressure on the Azerbaijani government to put an immediate stop to this crackdown and to start taking its international human rights obligations seriously before it is too late. 

Rebecca Vincent is an American-British human rights activist currently based in London. She is a former US diplomat and has worked with a wide range of international and Azerbaijani human rights and freedom of expression organisations.