“The situation in Azerbaijan remained poor”, begins Human Rights Watch’s annual assessment of international human rights conditions.

Restrictions on media freedoms and democratic process are still serious impediments on the road to improvement. “The government continued to use criminal defamation and other charges to intimidate and punish journalists expressing dissenting opinions; an outspoken journalist remained in prison on spurious criminal charges, apparently in retaliation for his work. The parliamentary elections of November 7 failed to meet international standards. Other serious problems persisted, including restrictions on freedoms of religion, assembly, and association, and torture and ill-treatment in custody.”

The report singles out the case of Eynulla Fatullayev, imprisoned since 2007 despite the European Court of Human Rights ruling for his immediate release, having found the Azerbaijani government guilty of violating the journalist’s freedom of expression.

Also mentioned is the experience of a Norwegian documentary maker: “In May Baku airport security forced Norwegian journalist Erling Borgen to place his camera and recorded DVD footage in his checked bags. Upon arrival in Oslo Borgen discovered that all footage from his visit to Azerbaijan for a documentary on Eynulla Fatullayev had disappeared.”

 With regard to the November 2010 Parliamentary elections, HRW concludes, “[I]nternational observers criticized the elections for failing to meet international standards”.

IRFS is mentioned under the Freedom of Assembly and Association heading, with a quotation from the organisation’s correspondents in Nakhchivan: “security officials regularly interrogate people
with whom activists meet, pressuring them to cease further contact for “their own safety.”

Religious freedoms are similarly restricted, finds the report. Two take two incidents from a single month last year: “two Muslim men from the northern Azerbaijan region of Zakatala reported being detained by local police, who harassed them for their long beards and forcibly shaved them off. […] police raided a Baptist harvest festival in the northern Azerbaijani town of Qusar, arresting four participants and sentencing them to five days’ imprisonment.”

“Widespread torture and ill-treatment in custody continue with impunity [and] the government continued to hold political prisoners. At this writing, NGO activists counted between 23 and 45 political prisoners”.

The report’s conclusion cites a number of international figures and organizations who have called upon the Azerbaijani government to address the country’s systematic human rights abuses: Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe commissioner for Human Rights, US President Barack Obama, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in addition to the Council of Europe, the EU, and the UN Committee against Torture.

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