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Azerbaijan
06.03.17
Urgent Interventions

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

Geneva, 3 March 2017 – The undersignedorganisations condemn in the strongest possible terms today’s sentencing ofMehman Huseynov, Azerbaijani journalist and chairman of the country’s leadingfreedom of expression group, Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, totwo years in jail on defamation charges. He was taken into custody from thecourt room, without being allowed to speak in his defence.

The 24 organisationsare deeply concerned by the continued targeting of Mehman Huseynov and call onthe Azerbaijani authorities to immediately and unconditionally release him andall other political prisoners, and to reverse the continuous clampdown onfreedom of expression occurring in the country.

“Today'ssentencing and jailing of Mehman Huseynov is outrageous - another example ofAzerbaijan’s best and brightest being targeted for expressing opinions criticalof the ruling Aliyev regime. It also shows that nothing has changed since therelease of a number of high-profile political prisoners last year. Therevolving-door policy of politically motivated arrests is still very much inplace. Huseynov is now one of at least 13 journalists, bloggers, and mediaworkers jailed in Azerbaijan. They must all be immediately and unconditionallyreleased, in accordance with Azerbaijan’s international obligations”, said RebeccaVincent, UK Bureau Director for Reporters Without Borders.

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

Mehman Huseynov was detained in Baku on 9 January byplain clothed police officers and held incommunicado overnight. Huseynov hasreported that while in police custody, police placed a sack over his head andused force against him. He was convicted of disobeying police orders; andalthough the Court released him on 10 January, he was fined, and continued toface police harassment. The court has imposed a formal travel ban on Huseynovwho already has been deprived of his travel documents for the past five years.

”Mehman Huseynov`scase is emblematic of the abusive and arbitrary methods used to punish andattempt to silence human rights defenders, journalists and activists. MehmanHuseynov must be releases immediately and unconditionally, he has to havecompensation for torture and ill-treatment, and those who are responsible fortorture and ill-treatment, regardless of their position, have to be brought tojustice. The international community must act, given the continued andincreased repression against human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers inAzerbaijan. The dire human rights situation in Azerbaijan deserves the highestattention and action at the Human Rights Council.”, says Florian Irminger, Headof Advocacy, Human Rights House Foundation.

”We are shocked and deeply distressed by thisshameful verdict, which is nothing but a mockery of justice. Azerbaijanilaw-enforcement agencies have earned notorious reputations for using brutal andunlawful interrogation methods. Instead of investigating the credible tortureclaims, the authorities have chosen to jail the blogger”, says Gulnara Akhundova, Head of GlobalResponse, International Media Support.

Notably, Mehman Huseynov has been critical of the appointmentof first lady Mehriban Aliyeva to the post of the Vice President on 21 February2017.

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

Detentions of PoliticalOpposition

Ahead of the Vice-Presidential appointment, since theamendment was passed in September, authorities have arrested severalrepresentatives of the political opposition on false, politically-motivatedcharges, including ten members of Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, one member ofthe Republican Alternative Movement (REAL) and one member of the D18 movement.

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

Crackdown on media

Journalists have also been subject to arbitrarydetention and harassment. On 17 February 2017 Elchin Ismayilli, founder andeditor of Kend.info, an on-line news portal known for its reporting oncorruption and human rights violations in the Ismayilli region of Azerbaijan,was detained by police. He is accused of threatening a local governmentemployee and has been charged with extortion and abuse of a position ofinfluence. Ismayilli denies all the charges. On 18 February, the NasimiDistrict Court sentenced Ismayilli to pre-trial detention for an initial periodof 24 days. Ismayilli is currently being held in the Kurdakhani pretrialdetention centre.

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

At the sametime, the authorities have continued their harassment of opposition newspaperAzadliq, which was forced to cease 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 andinterrogated by the Serious Crimes Investigation Department. The publication’sFinancial Director, Faiq Amirov, and prominent journalist, Symur Hezi, havebeen incarcerated on trumped up charges since August 2016 and August 2014,respectively.

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

This has been accompanied by calls for increasedregulation of the internet and online content. The chair of the Press CouncilAflatun Amashov, whose official mandate is to safeguard independent media andrights 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 ofcritics in exile

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

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

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

We, the undersigned organisations, call on thegovernment of Azerbaijan to cease its harassment and detention of governmentcritics. Allegations of torture must be investigated, and all politicalprisoners must be immediately and unconditionally released.

The relentless campaign waged by the authoritiesagainst media workers, bloggers, political activists, civil society and othersthat are deemed to threaten the power of the ruling regime must stopimmediately.

We also call on the international community to exert political pressureand take all the necessary measures until Azerbaijan fully honours its humanrights commitments.

ARTICLE 19

CEE Bankwatch Network

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

Crude Accauntability

Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum

FIDH – Indernational 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

People in Need

Polish Green Network

Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)

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