General environment not appropriate for democratic elections, says PACE pre-electoral delegation to Azerbaijan

A delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) was in Baku on 22 and 23 January 2020 to assess the pre-electoral climate of the early parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan, scheduled for 9 February.
Following discussions with various interlocutors, the PACE delegation considered it necessary to stress that there was a lot of room for improvement and that the period of time left until election day should allow at least some improvements to be realised.
The representatives of state institutions welcomed observation of the elections by the PACE delegation and stressed their political will to organise elections transparently, in a free and fair atmosphere. The delegation recalls that an election and its observation do not concern polling day only, but are a process involving several stages, all of which need to be analysed and evaluated in order to assess the entire electoral process.
Some stakeholders expressed serious concerns regarding respect for fundamental rights, especially freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Some opposition parties informed the delegation that they have decided to boycott the elections due to the restrictive environment.
As for the candidates’ registration and their participation in the election, the delegation strongly regrets that some political leaders were prevented from standing in the elections due to non-expunged criminal records, despite rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. It also recalls that in September 2019 the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, examining the execution of judgments in the Ilgar Mammadov group of cases v. Azerbaijan, required Azerbaijan “rapidly to eliminate all the remaining negative consequences of the criminal charges brought against each of the applicants, principally by ensuring that the convictions are quashed and deleted from their criminal records”. The PACE delegation considers that the non-enforcement by Azerbaijan of the decisions of the Strasbourg Court calls into question the constitutional right of citizens of the country to participate effectively in the election.
The President of the Central Election Commission informed the delegation about the preparations for the elections. Nevertheless, the delegation took note of the doubts expressed by many interlocutors who echoed the remarks of the Venice Commission and judgements of the European Court of Human Rights concerning the independence and impartiality of the election administration. The delegation recalls that, as mentioned in the last memorandum of the Venice Commission on legal issues concerning the previous parliamentary elections, “the election observation missions of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) repeatedly insisted on the need for implementation of the Venice Commission’s recommendations, in order to bring legislation into conformity with international standards.”
Interlocutors stated that, although guaranteed by the Constitution, fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and movement are severely limited by the legal framework and its implementation, pointing to systematic harassment and criminal prosecution of those who express critical views of the government. The delegation heard that freedom of assembly is not respected by the authorities, noting that the last authorised political rally was held in Baku in January 2019. It was informed that authorities used physical force to disperse an unauthorised rally of the opposition on 19 October in Baku, arresting many activists and opposition leaders. PACE considers that all necessary measures must be taken to guarantee the freedom of assembly and expression during the election campaign for all participants.
As for the funding of the election campaign, the PACE delegation recalls that a number of recommendations by GRECO, the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body, to improve campaign finance have not been fully addressed, including in respect of the time period for reporting, harmonisation of party financing laws, the independence of the oversight body, the lack of effective sanctions, and the need for more proactive monitoring of campaign finance.
Freedom of expression and media freedom, as well as the right of access to information, are guaranteed in the Constitution. Nevertheless, defamation remains a criminal offence, also applicable to online content, with a penalty of up to two years in prison. Since 2017, the Ministry of Transportation, Communications and High Technologies has had the right to block websites of media outlets because of their content, without prior court decision. At the moment, according to interlocutors of the PACE delegation, a number of news websites are blocked, and online activists are increasingly exposed to detention and intimidation. The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights has recently noted that “no progress has been made with regard to protecting freedom of expression in Azerbaijan”.
The PACE delegation was in Baku at the invitation of the Speaker of the National Assembly of Azerbaijan, the Milli Mejlis. It met with its Vice-President and members of the delegation of Azerbaijan to PACE, with leaders and representatives of parliamentary groups and parties represented in the Milli Mejlis, with leaders and representatives of extra-parliamentary opposition parties, with the President and members of the Central Election Commission, with representatives of civil society and the media, with the head and members of the OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission, and with diplomats based in Baku.
A 32-member delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe will arrive in Azerbaijan prior to the early parliamentary elections to observe the vote.
*Members of the delegation:
Alfred Heer (Switzerland, ALDE), Acting Head of Delegation
Raivo Tamm (Estonia, EPP/CD)
Georgios Katrougkalos (Greece, UEL)
Stefan Schennach (Austria, SOC), monitoring co-rapporteur

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