Over the past years FIDH increased its work on the situation of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan. The focus intensified especially in the aftermath of crackdown of last summer. Azadliq Radiosu spoke to Hugo Gabbero on FIDH’s recent visit to Azerbaijan and the organization’s evaluation of the human rights defenders situation in the country.
Hugo Gabbero: What we witnessed since the wave of repression in the summer of 2014 is that authorities strive to suffocate the last space of freedom and are progressively transforming the country into a giant prison for human rights defenders. So it is in the light of this situation that we (FIDH) decided last January (2015) to travel to Baku (January 4-8), to try and visit the human rights defenders in prison and to establish a dialogue with the authorities of Azerbaijan.
However neither our request to access prisons, nor our meeting request with the Ministry of Justice was answered positively.
We were told by phone on the last day of the mission that our request to meet with the detainees had to be filed with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs instead of Ministry of Justice. But apart from that we received no formal response to our request.
Nonetheless we were able to confirm the seriousness of the situation while on the ground.
We were first able to observe how the drastic legislation on NGOs coupled with systematic refusal of the authorities to register human rights organizations and allow them access to grants have rendered the activities of human rights defenders illegal according to the national law. And it is actually on the basis of an absurd enforcement of this drastic legislation that human rights defenders such as Rasul Jafarov, Intigam Aliyev, Khadija Ismayilova and Anar Mammadli remain detained today.
The human rights defenders we were able to meet and especially the lawyers defending detained human rights defenders at the moment but also the few independent journalist who continue their activities in the country told us about a general feeling of fear and a number of them reported that they were judicially harassed or were under the fear of judicial harassment in an attempt to paralyze their activities.
Disbarring lawyers from the bar association; removing them from cases of human rights defenders by calling them as witnesses [in other on-going cases]; and if we take for example the case of Khalid Bagirov, it is clear that the judicial harassment he is facing at the moment aims at sanctioning his human rights activities as a lawyer.
We published a report last Tuesday [April 21] which we titled “Azerbaijan: repression escalates in run-up to European Games”, which is unfortunately what we witnessed on 16th and 22nd of April when judiciary sentenced Rasul Jafarov to 6.5 years of imprisonment and a few days later Intigam Aliyev to 7.5 years imprisonment obviously on fabricated charges to sanction their human rights activities. Through these heavy prison terms it is clear that the authorities are sending a chilling message to Azeri civil society and to further paralyze any dissenting voice ahead of the games.
Do you see any changes before the European Games or after?
The signals we have had over the past days are clearly negative. Again the sentencing of Rasul Jafarov and Intigam Aliyev to very heavy prison terms is a strong signal of the authorities to the remaining independent civil society to say “either you shut up or you go to jail and remain in prison for a long time”. So clearly the authorities are sending this message at the moment and we have no signal that the situation will reverse in the long term.
Do you think the letter by FIDH addressed to the ECHR would help?
I think it is always good to sensitize the ECHR, to sensitize the Council of Europe to which Azerbaijan is a member and more generally to raise awareness of international community to what is going on in Azerbaijan.
The situation is clearly going from bad to worse.
But so far the authorities of Azerbaijan have ignored the external pressures including from the Council of Europe. And this is sometimes even felt as a provocation from the authorities. When you see the sentencing of Intigam Aliyev, prominent lawyer who has filed several hundreds of cases to the ECHR which is a Council of Europe body, his sentencing coincided with the session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
So one can see a provocation in the timing of his sentencing.
I think the geopolitical situation and what we have witnessed over the past months and years have put the authorities of Azerbaijan in a dominant position with their European counterparts especially as tensions are heating between EU and Russia. EU has become increasingly dependent on the oil and gas from Azerbaijan – this alternative stream from the south. And it seems that authorities are taking advantage of it and are now taking harsher stand without any fears for consequences.
What are the concrete asks ahead of the European Games?
What we are asking at the moment ahead of the games from European states is to refrain from sending officials to the opening ceremony of the Baku games as long as the human rights defenders and political prisoners are not freed in the country.
Are they listening?
This is complicated. When we talk about Azerbaijan with European states it is always complicated. This is the word we have heard very often. Our message is clear, what is not clear whether it will be heard.
Where does Azerbaijan fall into on the spectrum of repressive countries FIDH is working on?
It is hard to answer. Now for sure, Azerbaijan has twice as much political prisoners as Belarus and Russia combined. It is clearly going in the direction of Belarus.
[Unlike in Belarus where international attention is higher] with Azerbaijan clearly you have economic considerations, which seem to prevail and the authorities take advantage of it.
And European and US reactions are weaker [towards Azerbaijan] than what we have witnessed for Belarus.
And the caviar diplomacy?
The caviar diplomacy which was blatant at the PACE over the past years and the lobbying also of the Azeri authorities against the backdrop of oil and gas.