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Defending Human Rights in Azerbaijan: Steadfast Determination in the Face of Repression

10 December 2019

Azerbaijan is a country in which the global human rights paradigm, and space for civil society more broadly, is under attack. It is, to quote Netherlands Helsinki Committee Executive Director, Pepijn Gerrits, “one of the most difficult environments in the world to work as a human rights defender (HRD).” The government’s continued attempts to curtail independent civil society and human rights were most recently showcased in October 2019 when the Police violently disrupted two separate peaceful protests in Baku, with protestors being beaten, forced into buses and detained.

On Thursday 21 November 2019, the NHC hosted a lunch discussion in The Hague with two prominent Azerbaijani lawyers and human rights defenders (HRDs), Rasul Jafarov and Gunay Ismayilova. The discussion offered a valuable opportunity to hear local HRD perspective about the current political climate in Azerbaijan and about what can be done to improve the situation.

Rasul Jafarov and Gunay Ismayilova – determination in the face of repression

N.B. The quotes used in this article are taken from both the lunch discussion and a subsequent interview, conducted by the NHC’s Aaron Clements-Hunt, with Gunay Ismayilova and Rasul Jafarov.

In his introduction, Gerrits noted that, despite a repressive climate in Azerbaijan, both Jafarov and Ismayilova have “remained steadfast in their resolve to affect positive change in their country.” They both remain so despite having faced serious personal consequences as a result of their work in defending human rights.

In 2014, Jafarov was arrested as part of a widespread government crackdown on independent civil society. Facing various trumped up charges, Jafarov was sentenced to six and a half years in prison. His trial was described by independent observers as extremely problematic, including witness intimidation and ignored testimonies. Jafarov served a year and a half of this sentence, but was released in 2016 as international and domestic pressure increased on the government.

Ismayilova has also encountered intimidation and repression for her work as a lawyer, activist and Deputy Chair of the Institute for Reporter’s Freedom and Safety (IRFS). In August 2014, as part of the same government campaign that saw Rasul Jafarov imprisoned, Ismayilova had her bank accounts frozen by the Azerbaijani authorities. A general travel ban, in direct contravention of international law, was issued against her. In January 2015 while trying to enter her apartment, Ismayilova was even attacked by a masked intruder.

Rasul Jafarov: the human rights climate of in Azerbaijan

Addressing an audience of civil society activists, lawyers and state representatives, Rasul Jafarov opened the discussion by noting that opportunities to “talk and share” about human rights work in Azerbaijan are something that both he and Gunay see as hugely valuable – “together, we can discuss how we can solve some of these problems.”

Addressing the broad climate of repression and intimidation in Azerbaijan, Rasul described a country in which the most basic political freedoms and fundamental rights are under sustained attack from the government. For Rasul, having been imprisoned himself for defending human rights, the issue of political prisoners is “a clear reflection of the serious problems [Azerbaijan] has.” Since the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, hundreds of HRDs, journalists, bloggers, religious activists, lawyers and civil society activists have been “arrested, detained and convicted of various crimes.” However, the reality is that they have been wrongfully imprisoned for having exercised fundamental rights and freedoms, notably the freedoms of expression, assembly and association. Jafarov notes that “allegations of torture and serious mistreatment” are widespread. There have also been instances in which family members have been used as “political hostages” by the government. Since 1996, three individuals have been sentenced to life in prison for reasons which are clearly “politically motivated.”

Imprisonment of HRDs and civil society activists is not the only weapon in the government arsenal. The government and the police have regularly used violence and intimidation to break up peaceful protests. Put simply, “if the protest is a target of the government, they will do their best to stop it.” Commenting on the violently dispersed protests from October, Jafarov argued that this was only the latest instance in which the government has demonstrated its “excessive use of force against peaceful protestors who held only paper in their hands, their only crime having been gathering together to raise some issues.”

The government, in their attempts to restrict the space for human rights and civil society, have also conducted widespread legislative campaigns against civil society organisations (CSOs). Following a marked increase in government legislative attacks on CSOs in 2014, a general climate of “repression, limitations and restrictions against all independent civil society actors” emerged. Government attacks on civil society in Azerbaijan have grown so severe that many activists “have been forced to leave their country because of their political views.” The criminalisation of human rights and civil society activism, and the administration’s outright refusal to register NGOs, have meant that there is “always an obstacle.” The government “makes it nearly impossible to operate independently as the State interferes at all levels of NGO activity.”

In July 2019 the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of Jafarov and his co-complainants, casting the government’s actions [refusal to register Jafarov’s NGO] as unlawful.”

Jafarov himself knows all too well the obstacles employed to restrict independent activism. Since 2010, Jafarov has tried to register his organisation, the Human Rights Club, in Azerbaijan. The relevant authorities refused to register the organisation—a decision later affirmed by the country’s Supreme Court. Human Rights Club is just one of many NGOs that have been refused registration. However, in July 2019 the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of Jafarov and his co-complainants, casting the government’s actions as unlawful. As of November 2019, a renewed application has been sent to the Azerbaijani authorities. It awaits to be seen whether the government will respect the ECHR’s ruling.

Repressive legislation has not only targeted civil society and human rights activists, but also extends to general freedom of expression and media in all forms— television, print and online social media. The result, Jafarov notes, is that “it is very difficult to be a journalist in the country” and “at least ten websites belonging to well-respected and established professional media outlets, including Radio Liberty and Meydan TV, are blocked in Azerbaijan.”

In the bigger picture, the government’s “various and creative” repression of independent NGOs and journalists has undermined the rule of law in Azerbaijan. Furthermore, elections in the country are, according to Jafarov, “unfair and undemocratic.” The Organisation For Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) echoes Jafarov’s view, stating in a recent report that elections in the country “lacked genuine competition in an environment of curtailed rights and freedoms.”

Gunay Ismayilova on women’s rights in Azerbaijan

Gunay Ismayilova addressed the issue of women’s rights in Azerbaijan. While there is a rhetorical commitment to gender equality in Azerbaijan’s domestic laws and the constitution, in line with international standards, in practice “women and men are not equal in Azerbaijan.” While in theory there are no prohibitions to women’s involvement in politics, Ismayilova notes that “you can count the number of women in (Azerbaijan’s) parliament on the fingers of one hand.” The lack of women’s involvement in politics is reflective of a broader gender inequality in the country. Ismayilova highlighted domestic abuse and early marriage as major areas of concern. At least twenty women this year alone were reported to have lost their lives as a result of domestic abuse and violence, though real figures could be higher. Women in such situations are offered “no protection from the government.” In a country of ten million people, there are only three shelters for victims of domestic abuse. Ismayilova noted that, given government restrictions on civil society, it is also very difficult for CSOs fill this gap and provide support to women in domestic abuse situations; “If we don’t have an office, how can we even think about a shelter?”

Ismayilova leads a campaign in Azerbaijan – ‘Our Power is Equal’ (Gücümüz Bərabərdir) – which attempts to “break down deeply rooted cultural issues surrounding gender equality in Azerbaijan, and to tries to change conceptions of a woman’s role in society.” The series of social media videos, aimed at the younger generation, portray positive and empowering messages. Change in the area of gender equality is a long-term process, but Ismayilova argues that “if we want to change the government or the people, we need a positive and optimistic outlook.” The campaign has been received positively in Azerbaijan, particularly by young people, but Ismayilova admits that real significant obstacles remain. Namely, in many of Azerbaijan’s rural areas, away from the country’s larger cities, internet access is often limited or non-existent. This means that reaching women and young people in rural communities remains a challenge.

How can the international community respond to events in Azerbaijan?

Following presentations from both Rasul Jafarov and Gunay Ismayilova, the lunch discussion moved to a Q&A. A number of interesting points were raised, but the main questions centred around what the international community can do to assist Azerbaijani HRDs and civil society actors in overcoming the repression of fundamental freedoms and rights in their country?

At a national and transnational level, Jafarov noted that international financial mechanisms, especially given Azerbaijan’s reliance on oil and gas exports, remain a key asset in the international community’s response to the situation in the country. The European Union (EU), Jafarov highlighted, accounts for 52% of Azerbaijan’s foreign exports. This means that individual member states can exert a significant amount of pressure on the Azerbaijani government in relation to their human rights record. This is especially true as the EU is currently engaged in bilateral negotiations with Azerbaijan to establish a new Comprehensive EU/Azerbaijan agreement. Jafarov also expressed his belief in the crucial role of the Council of Europe (CoE). Pressure at this level has had results in the past. Notably, CoE pressure on the government of Azerbaijan in 2018 “significantly decreased” the number of political activists arrested and detained.

Jafarov however believes that, away from international political and financial mechanisms, the international community, notably NGOs and CSOs in the EU, have “a hugely important role to play.” “When the moment of ‘big change’ comes in Azerbaijan, there needs to be capacity within the country’s youth –leadership in politics, economics and civil society – to enact and direct this change,” Rasul explains. In providing “support and expertise,” the international community can offer crucial assistance to the development of youth capacity in Azerbaijan. Jafarov, defiant in the face of government repression, stated that “if [capacity building] is not possible in Baku, then we can do it in Tbilisi.” Indeed, Jafarov is involved in a leadership school for Azerbaijani youths, established in the Georgian capital in 2017 . Jafarov is confident that “if young people are prepared, they can change our country.” The work of international organisations, in promoting knowledge sharing networks and capacity building programmes, is both “greatly valuable and greatly appreciated.”

Both believe that the government is ‘starting to realize that they made a mistake’ in so aggressively supressing independent civil society and human rights… The government ‘did not release them because they wished to. They released them because they had to.’”

Hope for the future of human rights and civil society in Azerbaijan

The situation for human rights defenders and civil society activists in Azerbaijan is serious. However, both Jafarov and Ismayilova believe that the government is “starting to realize that they made a mistake” in so aggressively supressing independent civil society and human rights. There is a realisation, due to geopolitical, fiscal and domestic pressure, that “their current position is unsustainable.” Jafarov believes the government’s release of 52 political prisoners in March 2019 reflects this. Ismayilova echoed Jafarov’s position, adding that the government “did not release them because they wished to. They released them because they had to.”

It is therefore crucial that the international community continue to provide support, expertise and solidarity to civil society in Azerbaijan. Jafarov noted that upcoming elections in the country will be crucial; “if we do not get at least a partly independent parliament, it will mean the government can do what they want.” Jafarov called on the international community to do all that is possible to “ensure that the upcoming elections are free, fair and democratic.”

Keep an eye on the NHC’s news feed and social media accounts to hear about the impending decision on registration of Human Rights Club! A decision is due soon.