Azerbaijan: Crackdown on Free Expression Accelerates With Conviction of Prominent Blogger

The undersigned organizations condemn in the strongest possible terms the sentencing on March 3rd of Mehman Huseynov, Azerbaijani journalist and chairman of the country’s leading freedom of expression group, Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, to two years in jail on defamation charges. He was taken into custody from the courtroom, without being allowed to speak in his defense.

The 25 organizations are deeply concerned by the continued targeting of Mehman Huseynov and call on the Azerbaijani authorities to immediately and unconditionally release him and all other political prisoners, and to reverse the continuous clampdown on freedom of expression occurring in the country.

“Today’s sentencing and jailing of Mehman Huseynov is outrageous—another example of Azerbaijan’s best and brightest being targeted for expressing opinions critical of the ruling Aliyev regime. It also shows that nothing has changed since the release of a number of high-profile political prisoners last year. The revolving-door policy of politically motivated arrests is still very much in place. Huseynov is now one of at least 13 journalists, bloggers, and media workers jailed in Azerbaijan. They must all be immediately and unconditionally released, in accordance with Azerbaijan’s international obligations”, said Rebecca Vincent, UK Bureau Director for Reporters Without Borders.

Huseynov’s conviction stems from criminal defamation charges in a private case brought by the chief of the police department, related to a report Huseynov published in which he wrote about his experience of torture, after he was detained overnight by police in January,

Mehman Huseynov was detained in Baku on January 9th by plain clothed police officers and held incommunicado overnight. Huseynov has reported that while in police custody, police placed a sack over his head and used force against him. He was convicted of disobeying police orders, and although the Court released him on January 10th, he was fined, and continued to face police harassment. The court has imposed a formal travel ban on Huseynov who already has been deprived of his travel documents for the past five years.

”Mehman Huseynov`s case is emblematic of the abusive and arbitrary methods used to punish and attempt to silence human rights defenders, journalists, and activists. Mehman Huseynov must be released immediately and unconditionally, he has to have compensation for torture and ill-treatment, and those who are responsible for torture and ill-treatment, regardless of their position, have to be brought to justice. The international community must act, given the continued and increased repression against human rights defenders, journalists, and lawyers in Azerbaijan. The dire human rights situation in Azerbaijan deserves the highest attention and action at the Human Rights Council,” says Florian Irminger, Head of Advocacy, Human Rights House Foundation.

”We are shocked and deeply distressed by this shameful verdict, which is nothing but a mockery of justice. Azerbaijani law-enforcement agencies have earned notorious reputations for using brutal and unlawful interrogation methods. Instead of investigating the credible torture claims, the authorities have chosen to jail the blogger," says Gulnara Akhundova, Head of Global Response, International Media Support.

Notably, Mehman Huseynov has been critical of the appointment of first lady Mehriban Aliyeva to the post of the Vice President.

“Prior to the appointment of first lady Mehriban Aliyeva to the post of the Vice President on February 21, 2017, the Azerbaijani government has pursued a new wave of detentions and harassment of activists, journalists, and bloggers, apparently aimed at consolidating the government’s authoritarian rule and preventing any dissent around the controversial appointment,” says Sasha Koulaeva, Head of Eastern Europe-Central Asia Desk, FIDH.

Detentions of Political Opposition
Ahead of the Vice-Presidential appointment, authorities have arrested several representatives of the political opposition on false, politically-motivated charges, including ten members of Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, one member of the Republican Alternative Movement (REAL) and one member of the D18 movement.

There are credible allegations of torture and other cruel and degrading treatment of the detainees. For example, Rahim Shaliyev, a REAL Movement member detained on February 20 and subsequently sentenced to 30 days administrative detention on charges of resisting police, reported to his lawyer that he was subject to beatings and humiliation, resulting in an injury to his skull.

Crackdown on media
Journalists have also been subject to arbitrary detention and harassment. On February 17, 2017, Elchin Ismayilli, founder, and editor of Kend.info, an online news portal known for its reporting on corruption and human rights violations in the Ismayilli region of Azerbaijan, was detained by police. He is accused of threatening a local government employee and has been charged with extortion and abuse of a position of influence. Ismayilli denies all the charges. On February 18, the Nasimi District Court sentenced Ismayilli to pre-trial detention for an initial period of 24 days. Ismayilli is currently being held in the Kurdakhani pretrial detention center.

On February 22, cable TV channels officially suspended all broadcasts by the Turkish affiliate of FOX TV, after the channel aired a satirical discussion on the appointment of the new Vice President. A spokesperson for the National Television and Radio Council (NTRC) of Azerbaijan stated that this decision was made at the sole discretion of cable providers; however, anonymous sources within the cable providers have reported that they faced pressure from the NTRC to drop the channel.

At the same time, the authorities have continued their harassment of opposition newspaper Azadliq, which was forced to abandon print publication in September 2016, following ongoing financial pressures from state-owned or affiliated companies. In the second half of February 2017, over ten staff members were summoned and interrogated by the Serious Crimes Investigation Department. The publication’s Financial Director, Faiq Amirov, and prominent journalist, Symur Hezi, have been incarcerated on trumped up charges since August 2016 and August 2014, respectively.

Activists expressing critical views on the internet and social media, the last bastion of freedom of expression, have also been subject to police pressure, aimed at forcing them to delete dissenting posts. For example, on February 21, Nisakhanim Valiyeva, the Chair of the Classical Popular Front Party was held in police custody for four hours, the same day that Merhiban Aliyeva was appointed Vice President, and released only after deleting her critical Facebook posts about the appointment.

This has been accompanied by calls for increased regulation of the internet and online content. The chair of the Press Council, Aflatun Amashov, whose official mandate is to safeguard independent media and rights of journalists, has submitted a proposal to the Milli Majlis (Parliament), calling for mandatory registration of bloggers and activists, aimed at ensuring greater control over those expressing themselves online.

Harassment of critics in exile
The government of Azerbaijan is also pursuing government critics living in exile abroad. Shortly after giving a speech at the European Parliament on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan on February 6th, Emin Milli, head of Meydan TV, a critical TV channel operating in exile from Berlin, reported to German Police receiving threats of physical violence from the Azerbaijani authorities.

“The Azerbaijani authorities persistently violate freedom of expression and other human rights, both at home and abroad," said Katie Morris, Head of Europe and Central Asia at ARTICLE 19. “With this happening in their own backyard, European governments can no longer ignore the arrests, torture and harassment of government critics and their families and must call the Azerbaijan government to account," she added.

Where the authorities are unable to reach their critics, they have sought to harass family remembers remaining in Azerbaijan. Most recently, on February 22nd, Dadashov Khanlar and Sabuhi Zanalov, brother and nephew, respectively, of Netherlands-based blogger Ordukhan Teymurkhan, known for his criticism of the Aliyevs, were sentenced to 30 days detention on entirely bogus charges of disobeying police orders.

We, the undersigned organizations, call on the government of Azerbaijan to cease its harassment and detention of government critics. Allegations of torture must be investigated, and all political prisoners must be immediately and unconditionally released.

The relentless campaign waged by the authorities against media workers, bloggers, political activists, civil society and others that are deemed to threaten the power of the ruling regime must stop immediately.

We also call on the international community to exert political pressure and take all the necessary measures until Azerbaijan fully honors its human rights commitments.

Signatory Organizations:

ARTICLE 19
CEE Bankwatch Network
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
Crude Accauntability
Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum
FIDH – International Federation for Human Rights
Freedom House
Freedom Now
Front Line Defenders
Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights
Human Rights First
Human Rights House Foundation
IFEX
Index on Censorship
International Media Support
International Partnership for Human Rights
Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety
Netherlands Helsinki Committee
Norwegian Helsinki Committee
PEN International
PEN USA
People in Need
Polish Green Network
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)