Human Rights Watch World Report 2001 - Azerbaijan

Human Rights Developments

The succession to Azerbaijan's ailing president, Heydar Aliyev, dominated political debate in 2000. Since the speaker of parliament was next in the line of succession, obstacles to a free and fair vote for the November 5 parliamentary elections gained greater prominence. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) voted on June 28 to recommend Azerbaijan's accession and asked Azerbaijan "to ensure that its planned elections be free and impartial, liberate or re-try prisoners held on `political grounds' and guarantee freedom of expression and the independence of the media." While the government in 2000 adopted several laws that aimed to strengthen civic freedoms, its human rights record remained poor, and the PACE recommendation of accession was premature.

The government tried to manipulate parliamentary elections by adopting an unfair election law, wilfully delaying the registration of opposition parties and candidates, cracking down on critical journalists and media outlets, and banning most domestic, nonpartisan nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from monitoring the vote. Parliament enacted Azerbaijan's election law on July 5 and then amended it on July 21. As a result of these amendments, and in the words of the Organization for Security and Cooperation's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), which had been providing assistance with election legislation since 1998, the "current legislation does not provide for the full participation of all main political interests in the election administration's decision-making process and is therefore a step back compared to the legislation initially adopted." Moreover, no provisions were made for domestic observers in that law.

Opposition groups protested the law on April 29. According to domestic sources, more than fifty people were injured when police armed with clubs beat demonstrators, scores of protesters were sentenced to three to fifteen days of imprisonment on misdemeanor charges, and others were fined and later released. Criminal cases were brought against eleven of the detained, including Vagif Hajibeyli, chairman of the Ahrar party, and members of the prominent opposition parties Popular Front and Musavat. Authorities subsequently rejected numerous permit applications for public demonstrations – especially those that envisaged more than fifty participants (anything larger than a picket). On June 13, President Aliyev signed into law the controversial Law on NGOs, which barred domestic NGOs from monitoring elections if they receivedcertain levels of foreign funding. As a result, this law prevented For the Sake of Civil Society, which had observed the 1999 and 1995 elections, from monitoring the November vote.

In September, the Central Election Commission (CEC) rejected the registration of most parties, including Musavat, and the Azerbaijani Democratic Party, among others, by declaring signature lists invalid. Individual candidates faced similar problems. Spurious reasons for disqualifications were abundant. Dubious "experts" rejected numerous signatures on opposition signature lists as false, even though many of these signatures were shown by the opposition candidates to be legitimate. By contrast, the signature lists of pro-government candidates and parties were abundant despite opposition allegations of fraud. In a controversial decision, in response to international pressure, on October 6 President Aliyev requested that the CEC reverse its rulings barring all but five of the thirteen parties that applied to contest the elections under the party list system. On October 8, the supposedly independent CEC complied by registering all parties for the proportional ballot.

As the pre-election cycle heated up, the authorities used arbitrary licensing laws, fines, and trumped-up tax charges to intimidate the opposition media. On May 8, Elmar Husseinov found the office of his weekly journal, Monitor Weekly (formerly Monitor), sealed by the Baku tax inspectorate, allegedly for printing articles critical of Aliyev. The independent newspaper, Uch Nokta, had battled the courts from November 1999, and faced large fines as well as closure for months prior to the elections. The editor-in-chief and founder, Khoshgadam Bakhshaliyeva, claimed that state pressure was meant to serve as a warning to editors who might consider criticizing the government in the run-up to the elections. A large fine was imposed on the newspaper Avropa for publishing reports that Hussein Husseinov, a high-ranking government employee, was the subject of a corruption investigation in Uzbekistan. The Azerbaijan Broadcasting Agency (ABA), an independent station that does not broadcast political material, was suddenly closed from October 3 until October 13. The closure appeared related to a visit paid to the station by two opposition parties who expressed an interest in purchasing air time but were rejected. The president, Faiq Zulfugarov, believed that the closure was a threat from the government not to get involved in politics. He worried that his station would be closed again following the elections.

Yeni Musavat (New Musavat), an opposition newspaper, was a particular target. In February, their Nakhichevan offices were ransacked. On August 22, police arrested Rauf Arifoglu, editor of Yeni Musavat and Musavat party candidate for the parliamentary elections, interrogated him for several hours without a lawyer, and searched his apartment. Authorities charged Arifoglu with serious crimes, including conspiracy to commit a terrorist act, an airplane hijacking, calling for a coup d'etat, and illegal possession of a firearm (allegedly planted on him by the police). Arifoglu was released on October 5, but charges against him remained and he was required to submit a written assurance that he would not flee the city before the trial.

According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, electricity to the independent channel, ANS, was cut for fifteen minutes on July 14 in order to censor an interview with Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev that was being aired at the time because the government felt that the interview contained terrorist propaganda. Electricity cuts by regional authorities during opposition candidates' broadcasts were a common complaint of opposition parties in the final weeks before the parliamentary vote.

Advances in religious freedom came only upon intervention of the president's office, indicating that religious tolerance was not institutionalized in Azerbaijan. After a spate of attacks, primarily on evangelical Christians toward the end of 1999, in November 1999 President Aliyev made a statement committing the country to greater religious freedom. In December 1999 the authorities registered the Jehovah's Witnesses, after intervention from the president's office. However, according to Keston News Service, at the end of 1999 the authorities deported the German pastor of a Lutheran church congregation.

In June, President Aliyev issued a decree providing amnesty to many political prisoners, and in October, dozens were released by presidential pardon. Casting serious doubt on official statements that these were the last political prisoners in Azerbaijan, however, human rights groups claimed hundreds remained in custody, chiefly those convicted on charges related to terrorism, alleged coup attempts, and abuse of office. At the end of September, prison authorities reportedly charged many of these prisoners with disciplinary offenses in what prisoners said were trumped up accusations intended to justify arbitrary confinement in punishment cells or transfers to harsher prison regimes. Significantly, under a new penal code that entered into force in September, many prisoners with good records would have been eligible for early release.

Breaking an impasse between the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the government, an agreement was reached on June 1 allowing ICRC staff members to visit detainees. The accord granted ICRC representatives access to all places of detention and to all detainees – both sentenced and unsentenced. On June 23, ICRC staff, including a medical delegate, visited Gobustan prison – a facility administered by the Ministry of Justice and with a history of problems.

Defending Human Rights

Domestic nongovernmental organizations remained active throughout 2000, as demonstrated by their regular criminal reporting, especially with regard to the elections, and their dissemination of information. Eldar Ismailov, head of the domestic monitoring organization, For the Sake of Civil Society, protested the Law on NGOs that was adopted in July, for it barred his organization from monitoring the November 5 elections as it had in past elections.

The authorities responded by putting economic pressure on the protesting NGOs. Local utility charges were doubled, and organizations were required to pay these bills in a timely manner or be shut down – at a time when other organizations were not under the same constraints.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

In November 1999, the U.N. Committee against Torture reviewed Azerbaijan's initial report. The committee expressed concern that torture was not expressly criminalized and about reports of torture and the lack of accountability for it. Upon the committee's recommendation, Sir Nigel Rodley, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture, conducted a fact-finding mission to Azerbaijan in May.

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)

The OSCE officially opened an office in Baku in July designed, according to its mandate, to "promote the implementation of OSCE principles and commitments as well as the co-operation between the OSCE and the Republic of Azerbaijan in all the OSCE dimensions,including human, political, economic and environmental aspects of security and stability." Under the auspices of the Minsk Group, the OSCE made several efforts to resolve the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Concerning electoral progress, it issued several statements, among others noting that the July 5 election law contained "serious shortcomings" and that it was "extremely concerned that seven political parties were denied registration by the [CEC]...." After Aliyev intervened, the remaining parties were registered.

Council of Europe

The Parliamentary Assembly voted on June 28 to recommend to the Committee of Ministers that Azerbaijan be admitted to the Council of Europe (COE). This move severely undermined the council's leverage with the government to foster the implementation of legal and institutional reform (including reformed courts, police, and procuracy) desperately needed to improve Azerbaijan's human rights record. At the time of this writing, the committee had yet to act on that PACE resolution.

The PACE recommendation favoring Azerbaijan's membership found that Azerbaijan is "moving towards a democratic, pluralist society in which human rights and the rule of law are respected...." However, the document's lengthy list of conditions which the country was required to meet after its accession indicated just the opposite: that the government has made very little progress. The wide-ranging post-accession requirements included ratification of a number of significant treaties, an overhaul of domestic election laws, strengthening of parliament – currently little more than a rubber stamp – relative to the executive, reform of procedures on appointment of judges, opening individual's access to the constitutional court, and registration of nongovernmental associations. The PACE also proposed adoption of a law allowing the right to an alternative to military service, a law on the media, a law on ethnic minorities, and a law on lawyers' associations. Other measures required included the release of political prisoners, prosecution of law enforcement officials responsible for torture, and improved access of humanitarian organizations to prisons. At the request of the government, the Council of Europe also deployed an election assistance group to provide advice regarding the organization of elections.

European Union

In October, the E.U. and Azerbaijan conducted their second annual Cooperation Council meeting under the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. The council addressed human rights issues in the bilateral relationship, including Azerbaijan's obligation to implement OSCE and COE commitments. Reflecting the lack of progress over the past year, public statements following the meeting were more guarded about the relationship than after the 1999 council meeting.

United States

The U.S. State Department monitored events surrounding the parliamentary elections and issued many statements criticizing the government's campaign conduct. It condemned the Azerbaijani parliament's decision to allow the Central Election Commission to function without opposition party members present. It chastised Azerbaijan for continuing its distorted registration policy preventing certain political parties from participating. And it described the election law as "seriously flawed." Nevertheless, it supported Azerbaijan's accession to the Council of Europe.

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This report, Human Rights Watch's eleventh annual review of human rights practices around the globe, covers developments in seventy countries. It is released in advance of Human Rights Day, December 10, 2000, and describes events from November 1999 through October 2000.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.