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The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) condemns in the strongest possible terms today’s arrest and fabricated charges of “illegal entrepreneurship”, “power abuse” and “tax evasion” brought against human rights defender RasulJafarov.IRFS calls on the government of Azerbaijan to immediate release Rasul and drop all charges against him; and end the ongoing state harassment of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan.
The arbitrary arrest and detention of prominent human rights defenders—LeylaYunus on Thursday and RasulJafarovtoday — is an attempt to silence criticism and divert the spotlight from ongoing abuses, the organization said.
A fierce critic of Azerbaijan’s human rights record and justice system, Rasul has been working on the detailed list of political prisoners – the subject which is increasingly a taboo for Azerbaijani government. Two groundbreaking campaigns that he launched—Sing for Democracy in relation to the Eurovision Song Contest which was held in 2012 in Baku and Art for Democracy campaign gained nationwide attention and support, pressuring the government to improve country’s human rights record.
In recent days, Rasul has been interrogated at the Prosecutor General office in relation to a high profile criminal case targeting a number of acclaimed human rights organizations including National Endowment for Democracy, International Media Support, Black Sea Trust, IREX and Oxfam.
Today, following interrogation at the Prosecutor General Rasul was charged with three articles of the Penal Code—Article 192 (tax evasion), Article 213 (illegal entrepreneurship) and Article 303 (power abuse) and sentenced to a three month pre-trial detention by decision of the Nasimi district court in Baku.
The charges — same as those that lead to conviction of another prominent human rights defender, AnarMammadli in May — stem from the fact that the government has denied Rasul’s NGO official registration, despite the group’s numerous attempts to register.
RasulJafarov has been struggling to register his NGO Human Rights Club (HRC) with the Ministry of Justice since its establishment on 10 December 2010. HRC, with Rasul its Chairman, has been established by several Azerbaijani human rights defenders, dedicated to protecting human rights and freedoms in Azerbaijan. Since then, the Ministry of Justice returned the HRC application for registration three times, each time claiming new errors. All HRC complaints to courts have been dismissed.
The HRC remained unregistered until it was forced to cease its activities this year due to overly repressive new amendments to NGO law imposing huge fines and criminal liability to NGOs and its founders. The refusal to register HRC is highly believed to be the retaliation for Rasul’s active work in exposing human rights abuses in Azerbaijan.
Rasul’s arrest calls into question the Azerbaijani government’s stated commitment to improving respect for human rights as part of the Azerbaijan- Council of Europe Action Plan for upcoming years, and to launching a dialogue with independent civil society, as promised by Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev on June 23 in Strasbourg.
“Azerbaijani authorities systematically clamp down on those who seek to reach out to the international community,” said EminHuseynov, CEO and Chairman of the IRFS. “Instead of promised dialogue with civil society, the latest arrests show the Azerbaijani government is stepping up its aggressive stance towards those seeking justice and answers”.
Recently, there has been a rapid escalation in the cold war rhetoric of official statements in Azerbaijan which increasingly refer to presence of national traitors and fifth columnists. The statements have been accompanied by a set of concrete measures that further restrict the space for Azerbaijani civil society. This has included a state-controlled media smear campaign; the raids on NGOs; confiscation of equipment; arrest of NGO bank accounts which led to de facto shutdown of several NGOs; the intimidation and legal pursuit of NGO workers inside and outside the country, and so on. Right now, at least ten human rights organizations are undergoing through raided checks in which officials from the prosecutor’s office, tax inspectorate and ministry of justice comb through registration and financial documents.
When Azerbaijan assumed its chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s top decision making body– its committee of ministers—in May, some activists hoped we would see a system more tolerant of dissent and discussion. The government, however, is now widely seen as tightening the screws on the work of NGO and activists, including the sentencing of AnarMammadov, another well-known human rights defender, to five years in prison in May as well as arrest and heavy charges brought against female human rights defender LeylaYunus earlier this week.
“The international community should demand the immediate release of Rasul and his collegues languishing behind bars on bogus charges of “hooliganism”, “power abuse” and other fantastic crimes. The arrest of these human rights defenders shows just how important it is for the international community to stand up for human rights in Azerbaijan”, Huseynov said.
IRFS protests the three-months pre-trial detention handed to RasulJafarov and criminal charges brought against him, as violating international standards guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression and freedom of association. IRFS is calling for his immediate release and for the charges against him to be dropped.