The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) condemns the Azerbaijani authorities for beginning a large-scale repression campaign against its critics and restricting freedom of expression under the pretext of the aggravation of the safety measures against the new coronavirus pandemic.
IRFS condemns the illegal and frequent attempts by the authorities to restrict freedom of expression in Azerbaijan in the following forms: criminal and administrative persecution of human rights defenders, journalists and political activists as well as ordinary citizens; Internet access restriction affecting all citizens of the country by massively reducing the bandwidth of the national Internet traffic; targeted mobile and landline disconnections as well as interrupted Internet communications among opposition leaders and independent journalists in order to isolate them and stop any exchange of information; threats made by special services and law enforcement officers against representatives of independent local and international media, aiming to limit the spread of criticism and dissatisfaction with the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and the hardened legislation regulating freedom of expression and information.

IRFS believes that all the restrictions on freedom of expression listed above are the result of recent public calls by the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev. As the situation regarding the new coronavirus epidemic worsened, both in the world and in Azerbaijan alike, President Aliyev, in his public addresses on March 10, 19 and April 17, 2020, talked about the possible need to isolate the members of opposition, while calling them and the civil society, enemies of Azerbaijan and the “fifth column” of foreign states. Furthermore, the President did not stop at harassing his critics inside the country; he also threatened those in exile, calling them “particularly dangerous elements that must be seriously combated”. President Aliyev further criticized the Council of Europe and the representatives of its institutions, calling all recent calls for respect of human rights “worthless scraps of paper” to which he and his government do not intend to listen to. In the wake of the president’s above mentioned announcements, members of parliament expressed full support for the president’s hostile speeches. The campaign of inciting hatred against dissent continued on pro-government media outlets acting as catalyzers of state propaganda and misinformation.

IRFS condemns the aggressive calls of the country’s leadership ordering Azerbaijani law enforcement agencies to fabricate multiple criminal charges against dissidents. On March 22, prominent member of the opposition and journalist, Tofig Yagublu, was arrested on trumped-up charges of hooliganism. A week later, on March 30, journalist and human rights activist, Elchin Mammad, was arrested on even more absurd criminal charges: theft. On April 20, the shortest trial in the history of modern Azerbaijan was held. In only 45 minutes Judge Aydin Karimov, following a political order, held a preparatory meeting, examined the case and sentenced opposition leader, Zamin Salaev, to 2 years 3 months of imprisonment for defamation and insulting a police officer, in the absence of his lawyer (the defendant’s lawyer was unable to make the trip from the capital to the region, where the trial took place, because to restrictions on movement between cities due to the quarantine regime).

In addition to the criminal prosecution of dissident critics, over the past month, the authorities have put under administrative arrest 4 freelance reporters: Ibragim Vazirova, Mirsahib Rakhiloglu, Natig Isbatov and Ismail Nadirli. They were accused of having violated the quarantine regime. However, they were simply carrying out their professional duties, which they had every right to, without any restrictions.
On the background of growing dissatisfaction with the actions and inactions of the government against the Covid-19 epidemic, the leader of the opposition, was de facto put under house arrest after a public call from the President of Azerbaijan. Chairman of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, Ali Kerimli, had his internet blocked and his landline and mobile phone network coverage disconnected so that he could not give interviews to local and international media outlets. Journalists who came to Ali Kerimli’s house in the past 10 days in order to find out the why the chairman was unreachable and interview him were subjected to threats by Azerbaijani law enforcement and special service agencies (impossible to conduct video or audio interviews because of the above mentioned internet blockage and phone disconnection). Representatives of the TURAN News Agency and Azerbaijani correspondent for “Voice of America”, Tapdyg Farhadoglu, also faced pressure from the authorities.

Azerbaijani authorities have also intensified the persecution of their critics currently in exile. According to the information made available to IRFS, the Azerbaijani special services threated with reprisal activists who use platforms like YouTube to host daily broadcasts harshly criticizing the authorities. Those who live in Western European countries or the United States receive threats of physical violence or kidnapping with further repatriation to Azerbaijan. Over the past few years alone, IRFS witnessed multiple cases of illegal extradition of critics of the government: at least 2 cases from Turkey, journalist Rauf Mirkadirov and former deputy Huseyn Abdullayev, composer and author of the sensational protest song “СУСМА” who received political asylum in Germany; 1 case of blogger Elvin Isaev from Ukraine (three months before his extradition, the Azerbaijani authorities sought his extradition from Russia, from where he was forced to leave for Ukraine); 1 case of abduction in Georgia where investigative journalist Afgan Muckhtarly was kidnapped on the streets of Tbilisi then secretly and illegally taken to Azerbaijan. Given the above mentioned cases, IRFS believes dissidents and critics of the authorities residing on the territory of Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and Turkey are the most vulnerable and in need of support.

Over the past month, more than a hundred ordinary citizens have also faced threats and pressure from the authorities for criticizing the government’s response and the deteriorating epidemic situation in their online posts. Over 10 administrative cases were opened against social media users, as a result some citizens were illegally placed under administrative arrest for several weeks. For example, a resident of the city of Shamakh, Ikram Khudiyev, was sentenced to 10 days of administrative arrest for a satirical video in which he and his children ridiculed the Azerbaijani authorities through satire and namely suggesting that they are forced to eat grass in order not to starve now that the authorities stopped social benefits to their family.

The most flagrant case of punishment tied to freedom of speech, during the COVID-19 epidemic, is that of opposition activist Agil Khumbatov. The critic was illegally placed in an asylum and forced to undergo psychological treatment, like they did under the soviet regime to undesirable dissidents, for publicly criticizing President Aliyev.

“All above mentioned facts regarding freedom of speech violations are irrefutable evidence of pressure on dissidents in Azerbaijan, which is now aggravated by the deterioration of the situation with the COVID-19 epidemic in the country and in the region,” said Emin Huseynov, Executive Director of the IRFS. “The political reforms announced by President Aliyev are nothing more than imitations of reforms. For example, on April 23 2020 decisions of the Supreme Court Plenary Session to acquit former political prisoners Ilgar Mammadov and Rasul Jafarov, after many years of the defendants passing through local courts and even the European Court of Human Rights, cannot be considered an indicator of judicial reform. These same courts today, under order from higher up, and in less than an hour, can analyze the complaint of a state official against a citizen, find him guilty of defamation and sentence him to several years in prison. Furthermore, the recent pardon of inmates over the age of 65 because of the possible threat to their health is also not an act of humanity but a maneuver by which the authorities were able to partially mislead the international community, including the rapporteurs for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on Azerbaijan. Among those released from prisons was General Akif Chovdarov, ancient head of management of the Ministry of National Security, whose name is widely known as one of the organizers of the high-profile political murder of journalist Elmar Huseynov. The obvious instigator of this crime is the current political elite of Azerbaijan who ordered it,” summed up Emin Huseynov.

Considering the authorities did not officially declare a state of emergency in connection with the new coronavirus epidemic and that a special quarantine regime cannot be a legitimate tool to restrict freedom of expression, IRFS calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to immediately put an end to all of the above mentioned attacks on freedom of speech and to immediately release from prison all (over 120) political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, since their health and life are at risk because of a possible COVID-19 infection.

IRFS believes that the Azerbaijani authorities, represented by President Ilham Aliyev and his wife, First Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva, under the pretense of a “valiant fight” against the new coronavirus epidemic, deliberately strengthen restrictions on freedom of expression and socio-political rights in order to prepare for the next anti-democratic referendum to amend the Constitution of Azerbaijan to modernize and improve the current family governing system to their advantage.

IRFS calls on the Western European countries, the United States and Canada to closely monitor the deteriorating situation with fundamental human rights in Azerbaijan amid the global COVID-19 pandemic and to implement all possible diplomatic and international law mechanisms to deter Azerbaijani authorities from further repressing their critics inside and outside the country.

IRFS also calls on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, the Director-General of UNESCO, the OSCE Special Representative on Freedom of the Media, the Director of OSCE ODIHR, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, the Secretary General of the OSCE, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE and The European Parliament, within the framework of their mandates, to condemn the illegal actions of the Azerbaijani authorities, demand that Azerbaijan strictly complies with the country’s international obligations regarding the protection of freedom of expression and prevent the local authorities from restricting this freedom even during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

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