“ARTICLE 19 welcomes this decision by the Council of Europe as crucial step in recognising that political prisoners exist in Azerbaijan, something which the authorities in that country have continued to deny,”says Dr Agnes Callamard, ARTICLE 19's Executive Director.
“The practice of imprisoning persons on politically motivated charges for exercising their right to freedom of expression cannot continue and we call on the Azerbaijani authorities to comply with this resolution, as well as the country's broader obligations as a member state of the Council of Europe,”she added.
The adopted resolution was drawn from a report by Christoph Strässer, the Special Rapporteur chosen to follow up on the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Since his appointment in 2009, Strässer has been systematically denied a visa by the Azerbaijani government which he requires to enter the country to carry out research and meet with prisoners in fulfillment of his mandate. Such a refusal to cooperate with a special mandate to this extent is unprecedented at the Council of Europe.
In the light of this refusal, ARTICLE 19 calls on the Committee to explore ways to ensure cooperation by states with these special mandates.
Azerbaijan is bound by the European Convention on Human Rights and other sources of international law to respect and protect the right to freedom of expression. However, the Azerbaijani authorities have failed to fulfil this commitment and frequently violate this right. Journalists, bloggers, activists and ordinary citizens in Azerbaijan face harassment, attacks and imprisonment for voicing opinions critical of the authorities.
There are currently seven journalists, bloggers and civil society activists imprisoned on politically motivated charges for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Since the Eurovision Song Contest was held in the capital Baku in May 2012, when a number of human rights abuses in Azerbaijan were brought to international attention, there have also been a number of new arrests and developments, including the cases of:
- Mehman Huseynov, a photographer and journalist with the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) who is viewed by many local campaigners as “the first victim of Eurovision”. Huseynov had been active with the Sing for Democracy campaign, which used the Eurovision Song Contest as a platform to promote democracy and human rights on Azerbaijan. He was released following his detention on hooliganism charges from 12-13 June 2012 but faces up to five years' imprisonment as the charges still stand.
- Hilal Mammadov, the editor-in-chief of the Talysh-language Tolishi Sedo ('the voice of the Talysh') newspaper, was arrested on charges of drug possession on 21 June 2012. A previous editor-in-chief of the newspaper, Novruzali Mammadov, died in prison in 2010 while serving a 10-year sentence on politically motivated charges of high treason. The Talysh are a minority group who mostly live in the southern region of Azerbaijan near the Iranian border.
- Ilham Amiraslanov, a civil society activist with the Kur Civil Society group, remains in detention following his arrest on 8June on charges of possession of arms and ammunition. Amiraslanov has reported that the weapon was planted on him by police, who had also carried out acts of torture against him. The Kur Civil Society co-ordinator, Otgay Gulaliyev, was released on 13 June 2012 after two months in pre-trial detention on hooliganism charges. Gulaliyev is facing up to three years in jail as the charges against him still stand.
- Avaz Zeynalli, the editor-in-chief of Khural newspaper, who is currently on trial on trumped-up charges of extortion and bribery, based solely on the unsubstantiated claim by a parliamentary deputy. He faces up to 12 years in prison if convicted.
Other journalists and activists remaining in detention or jail in connection with exercising their right to freedom of expression, include Anar Bayramli, Ramin Bayramov, Vugar Gonagov, Zaur Guliyev, Ilham Suleymanov, Aydin Janiyev and Taleh Khasmammadov, along with activist Shahin Hasanli and human rights defender Vidadi Iskenderov who were arrested during the March and April 2011 pro-democracy protests in Baku.