Human Rights Developments

Increased international attention to Azerbaijan's abysmal human rights record failed to yield concrete reforms in 1998. President Heydar Aliyev issued a number of decrees ordering improvements in human rights conditions during the year. However, these were merely window-dressing. The measures could not substitute for the government's dismal record and its lags in adopting urgently needed structural reform of the courts, police, and procuracy, nor did they succeed in obscuring the government's dismal human rights record. Legislation governing the October 11 presidential elections and the future conduct of local elections provoked sharp criticism from opposition parties and a series of public demonstrations in Baku and other major cities. Senior government officials claimed that the electoral legislation adopted in July met international standards, but in fact the government had failed to adopt reforms recommended by international organizations specializing in electoral reform, such as the National Democratic Institute. The government's unwillingness to allow more equitable representation of opposition parties on the Central Electoral Commission was one of several issues that caused major opposition parties to boycott the presidential elections. OSCE and Council of Europe election monitors said after the vote that they had found numerous irregularities, and concluded that the elections did not meet internationalstandards. Although the parliament adopted legislation in February abolishing the death penalty, developments during the year pointed to the hollowness of the Azerbaijani government's commitment to improved practices in other areas. There was, for example, continued physical abuse by the Ministry of Internal Affairs staff. A November 1997 Human Rights Watch investigation found that physical abuse and torture by the police was rampant, and systematized in facilities such as the Baku City Police station, where many under suspicion of politically motivated crimes have been detained. Throughout the year, Human Rights Watch received numerous credible allegations that police continued to abuse detainees physically and to intimidate, harass, and even kidnap the family members of suspects. Family members charged that police and officials of other security forces conducted arbitrary searches without warrants, threatened and intimidated them, and in some cases arrested and then physically abused them in custody. Especially alarming was the climate of impunity in which the police acted; statistics provided by the Ministry of Internal Affairs showed that only two police officers had been prosecuted for physical abuse in Baku in 1997. Restrictions on public demonstrations also continued. On May 8, Baku authorities arbitrarily detained and held for periods of five to ten days approximately one third of the roughly 150 people who were peacefully protesting the highly controversial draft law on presidential elections, which was then under consideration in parliament. On August 15, opposition activists reported that approximately 300 people had been detained during election rallies in Baku and other cities, while Minister of Internal Affairs Ramil Usubov acknowledged that 106 had been detained for resisting the police or disorderly conduct. On August 6, the president signed a decree lifting pre-publication censorship and instructing the parliament to adopt laws to ensure freedom of the print media. Yet nine days later police detained seven journalists who were trying to cover the August 15 rallies; some of them were reportedly beaten in custody. In February, police seized issues of the Baku-based Monitor magazine. Journalists from the Monitor received a letter in April from the minister of internal affairs demanding that they refute an article published in that issue regarding torture in Azerbaijan. In July, a court found the magazine guilty of highly dubious libel charges that resulted in a fine, forcing its closure. And an April decree adopted by the Cabinet of Ministers further tightened restrictions on the broadcast media by creating new onerous registration requirements for all independent television stations in Azerbaijan. In February, President Aliyev issued a decree instructing his government to cooperate with international and local human rights organizations. Yet throughout the spring, smear campaigns and harassment by senior Azerbaijani officials, including Minister of Justice Sudaba Gasanova and Deputy Procurator General Isa Najafov continued, as in past years, against local activists.

Defending Human Rights

On April 29, the Ministry of Internal Affairs organized crime unit harassed and threatened Eldar Zeynalov, executive director of the Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan, during questioning related to his work. The Ministry of Justice arbitrarily refused to register nongovernmental organizations, including human rights organizations, lawyers associations and others. In April, parliament adopted a law governing grants to nongovernmental organizations. During parliamentary consideration the government failed to publish the draft law or otherwise make it available to the affected organizations, despite repeated requests to members of parliament and to the president's office, thus carefully excluding the very organizations that the legislation affected from commenting on the law.

The Role of the International Community

As interest in Azerbaijan's substantial oil reserves increased, the U.S. and some European countries advocated Azerbaijan's increased integration into European and other international structures such as the World Trade Organization, the Council of Europe, and NATO's Partnership for Peace program. By the first half 1998, multinational oil and gas companies had signed contracts with Azerbaijan worth $40 billion. Azerbaijan's human rights practices and lack of commitment to the rule of law should have been a grave concern to international investors given the substantial additional infrastructure investment under discussion during the year to bring oil and gas reserves to world markets. The large size of the companies' investment indicates a significant long-term commitment to the country. But multinational companies were silent on issues such as the lack of an independent and impartial judiciary to provide citizens recourse to a system of peacefully resolving disputes, lack of institution building to ensure respect for electoral rights to guarantee peaceful transitions of power, openness and transparency in the formulation of laws and regulations to combat corruption, and a free press to serve as a check on government abuses. This was regrettable given that enactment of rule-of-law reforms provides an important safeguard and foundation not only for improved human rights practices but for the long-term security of investment.

Council of Europe

As part of procedures governing Azerbaijan's membership application to the Council of Europe, rapporteurs andparliamentarians made several trips to review the compatibility of Azerbaijan's legal system with international human rights standards. A September 1997 report by Council of Europe lawyers noted in its conclusions that, "What is required above all is a change in mentality of those in power who do not tolerate any form of opposition." The report further called for extensive reform of the judicial and legal system, a radical, immediate improvement of conditions in pre-trial detention and on death row, and for judicial control of the police and procurators' actions during investigations.

European Union

Azerbaijan is a participant in the European Union's 50 million ecu Transport Corridor Europe Caucasus Central Asia (TRACECA) project, which aims to increase the political and economic independence of countries in the region by creating an East-West transport corridor with upgraded roads, port facilities and other transport networks. The E.U. was largely silent on human rights issues during the year. Given the European Union's significant involvement in the country, its silence on human rights concerns was disappointing.

European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD)

Responding to concerns voiced by Human Rights Watch regarding Azerbaijan's compliance with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development's charter commitment to multiparty democracy and pluralism, bank officials pledged to consider the issue in connection with its biannual assessment of Azerbaijan in 1998. The EBRD approved US$200 million in financing for development of pipelines and other infrastructure to carry Azerbaijani oil to international markets in July.

United Nations

In its concluding observations on Azerbaijan's initial report, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women expressed concern about continued discrepancies between legal protections for women and discrimination in practice, the government's insufficient commitment of resources to assess and combat violence against women and the high level of maternal and infant mortality, and the international community's failure to provide sufficient assistance in this area. In December 1997, the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights noted in its review that nearly the entire population of Azerbaijan is living in poverty and recommended as a matter of urgency that the government address basic needs of the population, such as safe drinking water, food, affordable housing, and health care. It also expressed concern that a large proportion of the resources necessary to finance social programs is diverted by corruption, which pervades State organs and sectors of the economy that are still under state control.

United States

The U.S. State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1997 on Azerbaijan stated that the country's record was poor, but other aspects of the report did not accurately reflect the human rights situation. The report stated that "members of the police committed numerous human rights abuses." But this vastly understated the widespread, rampant police abuse, the systematized torture of detainees, and the climate of impunity in Azerbaijan. The report noted positive developments in 1997 and pointed to the lifting of military censorship as an example. Yet later it acknowledged that violations of media freedoms continued at approximately the same level as in 1996 due to continued political censorship and government banning of newspapers. To its credit, on August 18, the U.S. State Department issued a strong statement regarding the detention of demonstrators at opposition rallies.
This report covers events of 1998

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