Blogger Release in Azerbaijan: Forgotten Human Rights Crisis Unfolds at Council of Europe’s Doorstep

This is a guest blog entry from Rebecca Vincent, Advocacy Assistant for Azerbaijan and the Europe Program Manager at ARTICLE 19. For more information, please contact Rebecca Vincent at: rebecca [ at ] article19 [ dot ] org.

Strasbourg 11.04.11: Inspired by pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, a recent wave of protests in Azerbaijan has resulted in scores of bloggers, cyber activists, journalists, civil society activists and opposition political party members harassed, arrested and beaten.

In a disturbing new step, the Azerbaijani authorities have launched criminal charges against a cyber activist based outside of Azerbaijan. Strasbourg-based Elnur Majidli, who was involved in organising the protests via his Facebook page, is currently facing charges of inciting hatred.

As the freedom of expression situation in the country continues to deteriorate in the wake of the government clampdown, representatives of the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan (IPGA) are set to highlight their concerns during the upcoming Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) session in Strasbourg from 11-15 April 2011.

The human rights situation in Azerbaijan has reached a critical level. We are receiving almost daily reports of abuse against cyber activists, journalists and others in connection with exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. This raises the question: how many more need to be arrested or beaten before the Council of Europe takes action to hold this Member State accountable?
The credibility of the Council of Europe depends on such stewardship,

said Dr Agnès Callamard, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.

Key areas of concern for the IPGA delegation include the recent wave of arrests of bloggers and activists in connection with the protests – some of whom face long prison sentences on the basis of politically motivated charges; increased pressure on non-governmental organisations working on democracy and human rights issues, including the closure of the Human Rights House Azerbaijan;

the recent abduction and beating of two journalists in connection with their criticism of the authorities; and the continued wrongful imprisonment of journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, who remains in jail despite a European Court of Human Rights judgment ordering his release.

This sudden spate of arrests of opposition activists and journalists is alarming. We are deeply concerned by the arrests that took place before the scheduled protests, as this suggests that the authorities are trying to silence people before they even begin to exercise their right to freedom of expression,

said Emin Huseynov, Chairman of the Baku-based Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety.

The IPGA delegation urges the Council of Europe and PACE national delegations to immediately increase their monitoring of Azerbaijan’s compliance with its Council of Europe obligations and hold Azerbaijan accountable. The delegation is comprised of representatives from ARTICLE 19, the Human Rights House Foundation, Index on Censorship, and the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety.

Media Profile: Eynulla Fatullayev

Eynulla Fatullayev

20 April 2007: Fatullayev is convicted of defamation and sentenced to 2.5 years’ imprisonment. The charge was based on an article allegedly written by Fatullayev – although posted to a website in another name – alleging that Azerbaijani forces may have been complicit in the 1992 Khojali massacre.

30 October 2007: Fatullayev is convicted of supporting terrorism, inciting hatred, and tax evasion, and sentenced to 8.5 years’ imprisonment (including his previous defamation conviction). The charges were based on an article he had written criticising the Azerbaijani government’s foreign policy towards the United States, arguing that it left Azerbaijan vulnerable to attack by Iran, and listing specific sites in Azerbaijan which Iran could attack.

29 December 2009: Fatullayev is charged with possessing illegal drugs, after prison officials claimed to have found 0.22 grams of heroin in his clothing in a high security jail cell.

22 April 2010: The European Court of Human Rights rules that Fatullayev’s imprisonment constituted a violation of his freedom of expression and right to a fair trial. The European Court orders the Azerbaijani government to immediately release Fatullayev from prison and to pay him a fine for damages and legal expenses.

6 July 2010: Fatullayev is convicted of possessing illegal drugs, and sentenced to 2.5 years’ imprisonment.

4 October 2010: The European Court of Human Rights Grand Chamber rejects the Azerbaijani government’s appeal, making the 22 April judgment final. The Azerbaijani government is now in breach of its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

11 November 2010: The Azerbaijani Supreme Court revokes the charges against Fatullayev of defamation, supporting terrorism, and inciting hatred. However, it also resurrects a previous conviction of defamation from September 2006, replacing a conditional sentence with a prison sentence, and retroactively extends the length of the prison sentence Fatullayev served for tax evasion. The Court considers Fatullayev’s conviction for drugs possession a separate matter.

6 December 2010: The Council of Europe Committee of Ministers issues a decision calling on the Azerbaijani authorities to “explore all possible means” of ending Fatullayev’s detention.

28 December 2010: The Azerbaijani Supreme Court upholds Fatullayev’s conviction for drugs possession. The domestic appeals process has now been exhausted.

11 March 2011: The Council of Europe Committee of Ministers issues a second decision in Fatullayev’s case, calling on the Azerbaijani authorities to “remove without further delay all obstacles to the implementation” of the European Court of Human Rights judgment.

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