Prominent Activist Arrested for Campaigning against Referendum on Expanding Presidential Powers

August 15th, 2016

natiq

Statement 

The Azerbaijani authorities should immediately release and drop the criminal case against Natig Jafarli of the Republican Alternative Movement (ReAl), the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) said today. Jafarli was arrested last Friday for his peaceful criticism of the upcoming national referendum, which seeks to expand the scope of presidential powers.

Azerbaijan’s slide toward a family-run order is gathering momentum: on 26 September, voters will decide on constitutional changes that would hand additional powers to long-standing President Ilham Aliyev and his family.

Natig Jafarli was arrested late in the evening on Friday, 12 August 2016. A court in Baku has charged him under Articles 192.1 (illegal business) and 308.2 (abuse of official powers – when such actions lead to serious consequences or are committed with the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election (referendum)) and sentenced him to four-months of pre-trial detention. Jafarli’s home was searched during the night and two computers and several legal documents were seized.

“Natig Jafarli is one of the few voices who has actually dared to challenge the repressive changes to the constitution proposed by President Aliyev”, commented IRFS Director Emin Huseynov.

“Jafarli has long campaigned against corruption and abuse of power in Azerbaijan, where critics are silenced with lengthy jail terms, blackmail or even murder. His prosecution fits a typical pattern of fabricated criminal charges designed to silence critical voices, and should be dropped immediately”, Huseynov said.

Jafarli, who faces up to 8 years in jail if found guilty, is one of the key figures in ReAl – a political group whose chairman, Ilgar Mammadov, has been illegally imprisoned for 3.5 years. In May 2014, the European Court of Human Rights issued a strongly worded judgment concluding that the real purpose of Mammadov’s detention “was to silence or punish [him] for criticising the Government.” Citing that ruling, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has called repeatedly for Mammadov’s release. However, Mammadov remains behind bars.

IRFS declares that the arrest of Natig Jafarli, the Secretary for Organisational Affairs of the Organisational Committee of Republican Alternative Party and the authorised representative of the Republican Alternative Referendum Initiative Group, is politically motivated and is an attempt to silence independent voices ahead of the controversial referendum. The ReAl Movement is seeking official permission to conduct a campaign against the referendum, and has passed the initial stage of registration after submitting the relevant documents to the Central Election Commission.

By silencing the activist for criticising the proposed constitutional changes, Azerbaijani authorities have disregarded international human rights protections that ensure individuals’ rights to express their views on the draft constitution and to vote freely, IRFS said.

“If people cannot speak their minds freely or take part in political activities without fear, how can they meaningfully engage in this referendum? The regime cannot expect people to simply shut up and vote in favour of this incredibly restrictive, undemocratic political set-up”, said Huseynov.

In recent years, Azerbaijani human rights defenders have repeatedly faced malicious prosecutions and trumped-up charges, very often in the run-up to or in the wake of important political events such as the 2013 Presidential Election or the European Games in Baku in 2015. Rights defenders have frequently been accused of financial crimes such as abuse of power, embezzlement and tax evasion, as well as others such as fraud and extortion.

IRFS warns that more detentions may follow Jafarli’s hasty arrest, specifically within the framework of the criminal case launched in 2014 to eliminate independent NGOs. In 2014, human rights defenders Rasul Jafarov and Intigam Aliyev and journalist Khadija Ismayil were jailed as part of this criminal case. In recent months, Natig Jafarli was also repeatedly questioned in the Serious Crimes Investigation Department of Prosecutor General’s Office as part of official enquiries. He was also illegally banned from leaving the country from September 2014 until February 2016.

In 2009, the constitutionally imposed two-term limit on the presidency was removed by referendum. Under the European Convention on Human Rights, all citizens of Council of Europe member states have a right to democratic governance. The removal of a presidential term limit in Azerbaijan (Article 101, V) violates the European Convention of Human Rights and constitutes a breach of international law.

The core of the rule of law is the separation of powers. In a country with a presidential system, power tends to be concentrated on the President, while that of the Legislature or the Judiciary is relatively weaker. Therefore, the regular change of regime through the process of election is the very method to prevent too strong a concentration of powers in the hands of the President.

Azerbaijan is the only member of the Council of Europe which does not limit the number of consecutive terms on the presidency. If the proposed extension of the presidential term (from 5 to 7 years) passes through the referendum Azerbaijan will become the second country in the world – after Syria – with a seven-year presidential term and possibility of unlimited number of consecutive terms of the presidency.

IRFS has repeatedly warned Azerbaijan’s bilateral and multilateral partners that this kind of set-up is unacceptable in a democratic society and will lead to the further deterioration of an already alarming human rights situation. However, world leaders – among them US President Barack Obama, French president François Holland and German Chancellor Angela Merkel – rushed to receive President Aliyev and shake hands with him. IRFS perceives this as a stamp of approval for the Aliyev’s regime ongoing crackdown on all forms of dissent and democratic values.

“It is high time for Azerbaijan’s partners to stand up for the rights and freedoms of the Azerbaijani people. The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, its Committee of Ministers and the Secretary General should address the current critical situation, and undertake all possible disciplinary measures against the government of Azerbaijan if undemocratic amendments are made to the Constitution,” Emin Huseynov said.

IRFS emphasises that the authorities have targeted Natig Jafarli for exposing false propaganda campaigns aimed at concealing the socio-economic crisis in the country, shedding light on the country’s real economic situation through scientific analysis and publically speaking out against the referendum.

IRFS notes that during the summer months, the Aliyev regime has once again intensified pressure against independent-minded individuals. The brother-in-law of opposition party APFP Chairman Ali Karimli, Elnur Seyidov, is being threatened with death in Prison #13, while Natig Jafarli is denied access to an independent lawyer and his court hearing is held in secret.
IRFS calls on the Azerbaijani government to immediately release Natig Jafarli and ReAl Movement Chairman Ilgar Mammadov; to put an end to the pressure against alternative voices; and to ensure a free environment for the operation of independent civil society institutes.

IRFS calls on the international community to provide robust responses to the gross human rights violations in Azerbaijan, which are contrary to the country’s commitments before the OSCE, the UN and the Council of Europe.

IRFS believes that Azerbaijan’s partners should seriously consider the application of sanctions such as freezing illegally-obtained assets and restricting the free movement of members of ruling elite. Power abuse and enrichment by high-ranking officials are the main incentives for the relentless repression of the critics of the regime.