Less than one week before Azerbaijan assumes Chairmanship of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, a new report details yet another area of concern when it comes to human rights practices in the country. Despite having two separate hotels cancel Art for Democracy’s scheduled launch events, on 8 May, the campaign launched the report, Creativity Under Pressure: Artistic Freedom of Expression in Azerbaijan. The first of its kind, the report details cases of violations of the right to artistic freedom of expression over the past three years in Azerbaijan.
According to the report, the Azerbaijani authorities have used a range of tactics to silence critical artistic expression, including harassment, intimidation, threats, interference, legal pressure, arrest, imprisonment, and torture. Among the cases highlighted are those of rocker/rapper Jamal Ali, who was forced to flee the country for safety; writer Akram Aylisli, who faced widespread calls for violence; and the Qanun publishing house, which faces likely closure following a politically motivated criminal tax evasion case.
Art for Democracy, the group behind the report, is a campaign that uses art to promote democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan. In addition to the cases of artists it outlines in the report, Art for Democracy has faced its own share of pressure since its launch in December 2012. Campaign staff and supporters have been subjected to harassment, detention, and expulsion from the country, and campaign activities have been disrupted – including the attempted launch event for this report.
As noted in the report, the pressure against Art for Democracy and interference with its activities is a good example of the attitude of the Azerbaijani authorities towards those who use art to explore risky topics such as democracy, human rights, and corruption. To that end, the report also covers cases of human rights defenders and political activists who have been targeted for using artistic expression to draw attention to the human rights situation in the country or express critical political views, such as youth activists Ilkin Rustemzade and Bakhtiyar Guliyev, who have been sentenced to serious jail time for political reasons.
The report contains recommendations to the Azerbaijani government for steps needed to improve the situation of artistic freedom of expression in the country, including calls to cease politically motivated arrests connected with the exercise of the right to artistic freedom of expression; to investigate and prosecute reports of torture and calls for violence against artists; to cease practices of discriminatory treatment of critical and alternative artists; and to decriminalize defamation. Art for Democracy also called for the government to invite UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights Farida Shaheed to undertake a fact-finding visit to Azerbaijan.
Alongside the report, Art for Democracy also launched a new website, www.artfordemocracy.net, although the site experienced a hack attack almost immediately after going live, and is not currently functioning. The site features the work of talented young Azerbaijani artists who are largely prevented from disseminating their work via mainstream channels due to politically motivated restrictions and interference from the authorities. The site also provides more information on the situation of artistic freedom of expression in Azerbaijan.
Rebecca Vincent is one of the authors of the report detailed in this piece. She served as Advocacy Director of the Art for Democracy campaign from November 2012 until April 2014.
The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL