Azerbaijan: A country of amputated spirits

Has Azerbaijan’s dismal human rights record been swept under the rug because of global energy demand?

In 2013, there were 19 prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan, writes Geybullayeva [AFP]

In his 2011 speech, Stefan Fule, a Czech diplomat in charge of the European Union enlargement policy, said: “Europe should have backed democrats, not dictators.”

The statement came in the wake of the Arab Spring. Fule added: “The crowds in the streets of Tunis, Cairo and elsewhere have been fighting in the name of our shared values. It is with them and for them we must work today [and] not with dictators who are, as we speak, spilling the blood of their own people with utter disregard for human life.”

On a different continent not far from Tunisia and Egypt lies a different kind of monster. There, too, is a disregard for human life with intimidation, fear and arrests, resulting in a mass amputation of spirits. Azerbaijan, a nation of some 9.3 million inhabitants and an alternative source of energy for Europe, is currently the chair of the Council of Europe (CoE), despite its abominable human rights record.   

I call on the authorities of Azerbaijan to respect the fundamental principles and legally-binding standards of the European Convention on Human Rights, which they have undertaken to uphold when joining the Council of Europe.

by - Thorbjorn Jagland, Secretary General of the CoE

Fule’s statement came in 2011, but fast forward to 2014, and some are asking: What happened to the statement about not supporting dictatorships? Not much has happened, especially when we look at other dictatorships surrounding the Council of Europe – Azerbaijan being a prime example.

Just a few days after Azerbaijan assumed the chairmanship of the Council of Europe on May 15, President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the CoE, Anne Brasseur, called on the Azerbaijani government to “address urgently the deteriorated situation in the areas of freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of assembly”.

Thorbjorn Jagland, Secretary General of the CoE, has also expressed concern over the Azerbaijani government’s detention of two human rights activists. In 2013, he said: “I call on the authorities of Azerbaijan to respect the fundamental principles and legally-binding standards of the European Convention on Human Rights, which they have undertaken to uphold when joining the Council of Europe.”

It looks like the Council must have changed its mind on the potential impact the institution has over its members because no improvements appear to have been made, and no punitive action has been taken. In 2000, Russia was expelled from the Council over Chechnya and – more recently – following its annexation of Crimea. 

So what is different about Azerbaijan? Perhaps there was no military coup, and it has not annexed any territories, but its human rights record is appalling and the recent increase in arrests of dissenters and activists is alarming. 

Arrested and sentenced

Azerbaijan has been a member of the CoE for the past 13 years and little has changed since its membership. According to Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, “democratisation and protection of human rights is a process [and Azerbaijan] is in that process”.

The results of that “process” as Mammadyarov puts it, have yet to be seen. There are currently ten journalists, five bloggers and eight youth activists convicted on trumped-up charges and serving various sentences. According to Amnesty International, in 2013 there were at least 19 prisoners of conscience behind bars in Azerbaijan. 

There is also the case of Anar Mammadli and Bashir Suleymanli from the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center who were convicted in May for “abusing power” and “using their office to falsify [presidential] elections results”. Mammadli was sentenced to five and a half years in jail while Suleymanli was sentenced to three and a half.

Politicians are also targeted, namely Ilgar Mammadov, head of the Alternative Republican civic movement, who is currently serving a seven-year prison term.

As if to maintain the gender balance among those arrested and sentenced, several well-known female advocates have not been spared. While on her way to a conference, prominent human rights advocate Leyla Yunus was prevented from leaving the country and was interrogated the next day.

What all of these people have in common is their critical approach to the government’s policies, budget spending, election transparency and overall crackdown on dissent. For the government, however, they are dismissed as “hooligans” and “instigators of hate”, “liars” and “drug addicts”.

Is energy security more important than human life? So far, this certainly has been the case

Ironically, Azerbaijan is also a member of the UN Human Rights Council. According to Article 8 of the Council’s Charter, members guilty of gross and systematic violations of human rights are subject to suspension similar to the case with Libya in 2011.

As if to make the already grim picture even worse, the CoE failed to accept a resolution on political prisoners in Azerbaijan last January with only 79 members voting in favour and 125 against.

Azerbaijan has also yet to decriminalise defamation. In a recent statement by one of the local MPs, this decision is going to be postponed indefinitely as “people in Azerbaijan are not ready for it”.

Energy security 

In the years following independence, Azerbaijan was a country hardly known by the West, albeit today, thanks to millions of dollars worth of lobbying efforts by Western lobby firms hired in the US and pro-Azerbaijani foundations in the EU (such as European Azerbaijani Society, TEAS, with offices in London, Brussels, Berlin, Paris and Istanbul) there can be no more excuses. It is no secret that the country is ruled by one man, whose leadership record is far from stellar – none of which particularly point to democracy. 

Is it not time for institutions like the Council of Europe to take action against members like Azerbaijan, that contravene its values, rather than issuing sterile statements? The Azerbaijani government is stronger than it was ten years ago and there is a clear difference in how it cracks down on dissent.

Economically, the country is much stronger due to its significant contribution to the world’s energy supply. It’s not that the international community isn’t aware of blackmail, harassment, circus trials and routine crackdowns, but a decision to take certain measures is lagging – if not completely absent – from the discussion table.

So the question arises: Is energy security more important than human life? So far, this certainly has been the case. 

Arzu Geybullayeva is a political analyst for the Caucasus region and a specialist in human rights and press freedom in Azerbaijan.