On 27 February, the U.S. State Department released its annual Human Rights Report, which details human rights practices in 2013 in nearly 200 countries, including Azerbaijan.
According to the report, the “most significant human rights problems” in Azerbaijan 2013 included “restrictions on freedoms of expression, assembly, and association;” “restrictions on the right of citizens to change their government peacefully;” and “unfair administration of justice.”
Key freedom of expression issues included the detention or imprisonment of 12 journalists; violence against journalists; harassment of journalists; restrictions on the sale and distribution of print publications; signal interference with the satellite broadcasts of RFE/RL and others; and the closure of Free Thought University.
Major concerns with regard to freedom of assembly and association included severe restrictions on peaceful protests through the use of force and detention; arbitrary restrictions on unsanctioned protests; legal restrictions on the financing and operations of NGOs; and rejection of the registration of human rights and democracy NGOs.
The report’s section on elections and political participation concluded that “The October 9 presidential election fell short of international standards,” referring to the findings of the OSCE/ODIHR and the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDS). It also stated that “the government maintained a repressive political environment” in the run-up to the election, and detailed the criminal case against EMDS Chairman Anar Mammadli following the election.
The section on political prisoners and detainees refers to the fact that local and international NGOs reported anywhere from dozens to 143 cases. The inclusion by name of Ilgar Mammadov, Tofig Yagublu, and Anar Mammadli in this section is significant, at is generally the closest the State Department comes to labeling individuals as political prisoners in Azerbaijan.
Also significant is the inclusion by name in the earlier subsection on arbitrary arrest of NIDA civic movement activists Bakhtiyar Guliyev, Mammad Azizov, Rashad Hasanov, Rashadat Akhundov, Shahin Novruzlu, Uzeyir Mammadli, and Zaur Gurbanli, Free Youth Organization activist Ilkin Rustamzade, political party activists Dashgin Malikov and Rasul Mursalov, and Facebook activist Abdul Abilov.
One shortcoming in the general structure of the report is the heavy focus on civil and political rights, while many economic, social and cultural rights issues are neglected – although labor rights are covered at length. In the Azerbaijan section, this has meant that property rights violations – a widespread and ongoing occurrence in Baku – and minority rights issues were only briefly mentioned. But this problem is not specific to the State Department; many human rights organizations, both domestic and international, also focus primarily on civil and political rights in Azerbaijan.
Overall, the report presents a good overview of the human rights situation in Azerbaijan. Those involved in the compilation of the report have clearly consulted a wide range of first-hand sources, and used information from local and international human rights groups and the Azerbaijani government. The rigorous fact-checking and clearance process applied in the preparation of these reports gives a great deal of credibility to its findings – which will, no doubt, be disputed by the Azerbaijani government, regardless.
Now, the challenge remains of putting this report to good use. Mandated by the U.S. Congress, the primary purpose of the report is to help inform U.S. government policy and foreign assistance. However, past reports do not seem to have made much of a difference in Congressional-level relations with and assistance to the Azerbaijani government. Let us hope that this new report leads to Congress taking more seriously the ever-deteriorating human rights situation in Azerbaijan.
Rebecca Vincent is human rights activist and former U.S. diplomat.
The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL