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Shocking new arrests of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan

05 August 2014

Update August 13: Amnesty International has started an urgent action in support of Leyla Yunus, whose health has deteriorated sharply in recent days. Click here for more information on how you can join this action by sending an appeal to the Azerbaijani authorities.

Update August 8: Today, another prominent Azerbaijani human rights activist was detained: Intigam Alijev of the Legal Education Society. Alijev is a human rights lawyer with whom NHC has worked together in the past.

Update August 7: Please join this letter and postcard writing action in support of Leyla Yunus, Rasul Jafarov and Arif Yunus. Details on how to participate are on our Facebook page.

The Netherlands Helsinki Committee calls for a review of policies by European governments towards Azerbaijan after the shocking arrest last week of two prominent Azerbaijani human rights defenders, Leyla Yunus and Rasul Jafarov (picture). Both are in pre-trial detention. The arrests mark a new low in official policies towards independent civil society voices, which have become gradually more repressive in recent  years. In May, Azerbaijan took on the presidency of the Council of Europe, the main European intergovernmental regional human rights protection organization, but this seems to have only led to worse human rights compliance in the country.

Developments include the introduction of amendments to Azerbaijani legislation opening even more possibilities for  restricting civil society activities. Authorities have arrested a number of activists and journalists based on fabricated or trumped-up charges, and some have already been sentenced to heavy sanctions, including imprisonment. Activists’ bank accounts have been frozen. Dozens of other civil society organisations in Azerbaijan are threatened with paralasis and with further arrests.

On 30 July Leyla Yunus, leader of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, was served with charges of state treason (art. 274 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Azerbaijan), fraud (art. 178), tax evasion (art.213), and illegal business (art. 192). Leyla Yunus is a well-known Azerbaijani human rights defender devoting her work to the peace building between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

On 2 August, Rasul Jafarov, one of the initiators of the 2012 Sing for Democracy campaign on the occasion of the Eurovision Song Festival in Baku, was charged with three articles of the Criminal code of Azerbaijan: tax evasion (art. 192), illegal entrepreneurship (art. 213) and abuse of office (art. 308). Rasul Jafarov has also advocated for the release of political prisoners in Azerbaijan; most recently, during the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) session in June 2014 Rasul Jafarov and other human rights defenders reported about the issue of political prisoners in the country. Soon after, the PACE decided to initiate the appointment of a special rapporteur on political prisoners in Azerbaijan. During the 23rd annual session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Baku  28 June-2 July 2014, Jafarov and his colleagues organized hearings on the issue of political prisoners.

In earlier cases, on 26th May 2014, the Baku Court of Grave Crimes sentenced Anar Mammadli, chairman of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre, to 5,5 years of imprisonment, while his deputy Bashir Suleymanli was sentenced to 3,5 years and arrested in the courtroom. The head of the Public Association for International Cooperation of Volunteers, Elnur Mammadov, was given the same term with 2 years on probation. They were found guilty under art. 179.3.2 (appropriation in significant size), art. 192.2.2 (illegal entrepreneurship by an organized group), art. 213.1 (tax evasion), art. 308.2 (abuse of official authority with grave consequences) and 313 (service forgery) of the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan.

On 14 July, Hasan Huseynli, the President of „Intelligent Citizen” Enlightenment Center Public Union acting in Ganja, was convicted to a prison term of almost 6 years for on trumped up charges of ‘hooliganism’. Hasan Huseynli is an education promoter, social activist, and community leader, who has had a huge positive impact on hundreds of young Azerbaijanis, encouraging them to study abroad and contribute to Azerbaijan’s development with their knowledge and skills.

This persecution of human rights defenders and their organisations takes place against the back-drop of increasing legislative and administrative pressure on NGOs. The Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for the foreign grant registration started to deny registration of grants. Without a document of grant registration, organizations’ representatives are not allowed to withdraw money from banks in order to finance their activity. In the last couple of weeks private bank accounts of several human rights activists have been frozen (among others Mirvari Gahramanli, Rasul Jafarov, Zohrab Ismayil and Elchin Abdullayev). The freezing of funds is an official element of the governmental fight with money laundering. Last week the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, annulled the regulation of the Ministry of Justice, which enabled the denial of grant registration. By 1 November 2014 the Ministry of Justice of Azerbaijan will need to establish new rules of grant registrations.

At the end of May 2014, the Parliament of Azerbaijan, Milli Majlis, has introduced worrying amendments to the law on citizenship. New reasons for forfeiting the citizenship of the Republic of Azerbaijan have been introduced. Forfeiting can occur if: “a citizen of the Azerbaijan Republic voluntarily obtains citizenship of another country; citizen of Azerbaijan Republic voluntarily serves at state bodies and municipalities, or armed forces and/or another armed units of a foreign country; citizen of Azerbaijan Republic behaves damaging to state security; while acquiring the citizenship of the Azerbaijan Republic, a person has deliberately falsified the data necessary to acquire the citizenship, or submitted a falsified document”. The possibility of withdrawing the Azerbaijani citizenship in case of behaviour damaging the state security is particularly worrying, as the notion of “state security” is very broad and can easily imply the authorities’ arbitrariness

The above mentioned measures taken by the authorities of Azerbaijan are disproportional,  inadequate and they contradict international norms. Further deterioration of the situation with fundamental rights and freedoms, as well as repressions against the civil society is incompatible with Azerbaijan’s international commitments, especially in light of its current presidency in the Council of Europe.

The NHC expresses its alarm  about the arrests. The pre-trial detention of Leyla Yunus and Rasul Jafarov should be lifted immediately. Human rights activists and others who express criticism of government policies should receive fair and equitable trials; urgent steps should be taken to this effect in cooperation with international experts from the Council of Europe and the OSCE. We urge the European Union and EU member states to review their relations with Azerbaijan and  with those elements in the Azerbaijani government that are activity engaged in systematic and severe infringement of international human rights standards.