"If they think by not letting Amnesty International into the country we would no longer monitor human rights issues in Azerbaijan, they are utterly mistaken”.
On October 7, the Amnesty International delegation consisting of two Georgian nationals was stopped at the border at the Baku Haydar Aliyev International Airport. The delegation representatives were informed they were not allowed to enter and that they would have to leave Azerbaijan on the next flight.
Amnesty International issued a statement on October 7 in which the organization shared its observation of the country’s deteriorating human rights record:
“For the last five years this list [of journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition parties] has grown shorter and shorter and Azerbaijan now holds more than 20 people whom Amnesty International regards as prisoners of conscience. They’ve been imprisoned simply for peacefully opposing the government and its policies or for helping the victims of human rights violations. All the NGOs that worked on human rights, about 20 of them, have also been shut down. Some of their leaders have been arrested or had to flee the country whilst others watched as their offices were sealed and their bank accounts frozen. Independent journalists and activists shared the same fate.
Opposition parties have been dismantled after constant harassment, threats and the arrests of their leaders and they’ve been effectively removed from public visibility and from political life. Thrown out of their offices, they are unable to hire venues or hold public meetings or convey their messages to the public and their constituents. They have disappeared from mainstream media, TV and radio, which won’t give them air time. Meanwhile young people who challenge the government on social media, and indeed anyone who challenges the government in any public forum, find themselves receiving unwanted attention from the authorities.
Sadly Azerbaijan has been allowed to get away with unprecedented levels of repression and in the process almost wipe out its civil society.”
AzadliqRadiosu spoke with Levan Asatiani, Amnesty International's campaigner and one of the delegates who was deported from Azerbaijan on October 7.
AzadliqRadiosu: What happened in Azerbaijan? Why were you there?
Levan Asatiani: Amnesty International delegation was planning to go to Azerbaijan before November parliamentary elections. The goal was to research human rights situation on the ground. We wanted to meet with the representatives of Azerbaijan’s civil society, journalists, activists and leaders of political opposition [parties] and discuss issues of freedoms of expression, assembly and association.
Our delegation, consisting of two people myself including flew to Baku, on October 7. However upon our arrival, we were stopped at the border. We were told our names were on a special list and that their internal computer system indicated that we are not allowed to enter Azerbaijan.
They told us we would be deported.
And so they took our passports and didn’t return them to us until our departure back to Tbilisi.
We waited in the departures terminal for about 5-6 hours.
The airport officials behaved fine. They didn’t say anything. But they also didn’t explain to us anything about the refusal.
We even asked them if we were persona non grata. To which they said no, just that we were on a list and that we were not welcomed in Azerbaijan.
But if you remember, when Giorgi Gogia from the Human Rights Watch was deported he was given a document. No one even handed you a paper?
They didn’t give us a piece of paper. There were no stamps in our passports either.
Was there any reaction in Baku? Were you able to notify anyone about your deportation?
We notified our fixer in Azerbaijan and our partners, with whom we were planning to meet.
Later, Pro-government Azerbaijani press circulated articles that we were refused entry into Azerbaijan because we had violated Azerbaijani immigration laws during our previous visits. This is, obviously, far from truth. The real motive behind the refusal was our human rights work.
Why do you think it happened to the Amnesty International delegation? Isolated case or is this becoming a common pattern?
I don’t think this is an isolated case, we have seen other human rights organizations who have been denied entry before. This is part of a larger problem as Baku blacklists international rights watchdogs.
They have destroyed local human rights organizations and now they are after targeting international ones.
What does this mean on a broader scale?
This adds challenges to human rights work in Azerbaijan.
For local non-governmental organizations, which remain, it means that they will have to find new channels to document human rights violations in the country.
For international human rights organizations this means adjusting to a new reality, that Azerbaijan has become a closed state and that we must all adapt to new tactics.
We have also seen international journalists being banned and deported from Azerbaijan.
And more recently we are seeing this happen to international governmental organizations as well, like the OSCE ODIHR who recently cancelled their election-monitoring mission because the government of Azerbaijan refused to agree on a common set of requirements of the observation mission.
What kind of tactics are we talking about here? Different style of gathering information or something different completely?
It is about a more long-term decision-making. We [international human rights organizations] must plan our work accordingly.
The authorities in Azerbaijan must understand that if they think by not letting Amnesty International into the country we would no longer monitor human rights issues in Azerbaijan, they are utterly mistaken. We will continue researching, campaigning and engaging in advocacy on Azerbaijan despite the fact that we are not welcome there.
Do you think by not letting organizations such as Amnesty into the country plays badly for Azerbaijan’s international image abroad?
Such cases are only creating more noise. By now, they have managed to create an image of a repressive country where rights are abused and freedoms are suppressed. Just look at the international media coverage of Azerbaijan over the past few months. It has been anything but positive. So what is happening on the ground is only damaging for Azerbaijan outside.
And although Azerbaijan is sensitive to the negative coverage it is receiving abroad, it is obviously not sensitive enough to improve the conditions at home.
What about Azerbaijan’s embassy in London? Were you in touch with them before or after your trip? Have you told them what happened or do you intend to?
We always get in touch with Azerbaijan embassy in London before sending a delegation. We always write letters to Azerbaijan’s ambassador. We wrote one in June before the European Games. In the official response we were informed our delegation won’t be welcomed in the run up to the games and were asked to reschedule our mission to a later time.
We decided to take up on this invitation and try visiting Azerbaijan before the parliamentary elections. This time too we informed the Azerbaijan embassy but we never heard back from them.
And this deportation incident only indicates that it was not about the European Games when we wanted to visit in June. We were simply not wanted then and now.
And what about raising this with other international organizations? Perhaps a call to action?
We will raise this issue with international and regional stakeholders.