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As Baku proudly hosts a regional forum debating the future of internet, the authorities continue to harass local activists trying to draw attention to the country’s shocking human rights. The government of Azerbaijan should use the Regional Internet Governance Forum as an opportunity to free detained and imprisoned journalists and activists, decriminalize libel, and end “witch hunt” on human rights NGOs, the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) said today.
The three day event is overshadowed by the very fact that it took place in an environment hostile to those that oppose the regime. Nine journalists and three human rights defenders are currently behind bars — most of their cases can be linked to criticism of Azerbaijan’s leadership.
The very idea of the Internet Governance Forum meeting convened by the United Nations Secretary-General is to bring together governments, civil society, and others as equal partners to discuss public policy issues related to the Internet. The Regional IGF, hosted by Azerbaijan, does not meet that criteria. Despite numerous requests sent to the organizers of the conference, the IRFS and other rights groups have been denied a chance to organize a workshop or simply have a thematic stand during the forum.
The Baku IGF was kicked off on December 3 with yet another piece of official rhetoric that Azerbaijan enjoys Internet freedom.
In sharp contradiction to these claims, on the following day, on December 4 opposition journalist Natig Adilov was summoned to Baku city Main Police Office, where he received a warning over his Facebook activism.
‘Azerbaijani officials proudly proclaim that there is a free internet in the country. The Internet cannot be considered free in the country where one could land in jail for a Facebook or Twitter post’ , said Emin Huseynov, CEO of IRFS.
IRFS has followed a dramatic increase in violations of freedom of expression in Azerbaijan since the 2012 Internet Governance Forum held in Baku. The government’s crackdown has been successful thanks to an impressive arsenal of repressive measures, including the extension of the criminal defamation to the Internet, harassment, arrests and prosecutions of free speech activists, and smear campaigns against human rights NGOs and individuals.
In a separate case, the moderator of the critical Facebook page Let’s Say Stop to Flatterers Abdul Abilov was arrested on charges of drug trafficking (article 234.4.3 of the Criminal Code) on November 22. If convicted, he may face up to twelve years in prison.
“Abdul Abilov’s arrest – and the recent arrests and convictions of other free speech activists – show how alarming the situation with freedom of expression in Azerbaijan is right now – and just how far the authorities are prepared to go to silence critical voices online”, said Huseynov.
IRFS recalls that the right to freedom of expression and information is guaranteed and protected by the provisions of international instruments, and treaties signed and ratified by the Government of Azerbaijan, notably the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Article 19, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 19, and the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 10. United Nations, Council of Europe, OSCE and EU representatives have on multiple occasions stressed that these rights must be applied in traditional media as well as online.
In addition, the harassment of journalists in connection with their professional activities and attempts to discourage them through intimidation is violation of domestic and international law and creates criminal liability under article 163 of the Azerbaijani Criminal Code (impeding journalists in their legal professional activities).
IRFS calls on the government to refrain from repressive measures which are contrary to Azerbaijan’s international commitments, and to respect and protect the citizens’ right to freedom of expression and internet.
IRFS further calls on the international community, in particular the Council of Europe and the OSCE, to take a stronger stance and exert greater pressure on the Azerbaijani authorities to fulfill their international human rights obligations.