UN Human Rights Committee reviews Azerbaijan during its 96th session in Geneva
The Human Rights Committee considered the third periodic report of Azerbaijan on 20 and 21 July 2009 and adopted its concluding observations for the country on 30 July 2009.
riday, 31 July 2009, by HRHF Geneva / Jihae Lee
The Human Rights House Foundation and a representative from the Azerbaijani NGO Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety were present throughout the review of Azerbaijan by the Human Rights Committee. Eight Azerbaijani human rights organizations had submitted to the Committee in advance an NGO report, entitled “Replies to the list of issues" (right), which emphasized four of the most dire human rights problems in the country.
1. Discrimination against women and domestic violence
Domestic violence against women is one of the gravest and most persisting problems in Azerbaijan to this day.
The Government is still not giving proper attention to this issue. According to the Legal Education Society and the Association for the Protection of Women’s Rights, the country’s Criminal Code does not specifically criminalize domestic violence and the current draft law on domestic violence has yet to be adopted. In addition, the Government does not effectively investigate domestic violence cases and ignores the urgent need for implementation of special programs for rehabilitation of victims of domestic violence, such as shelters.
The country delegation at the Committee proceedings emphasized the Government’s actions to curb domestic violence. They stated that they have a number of mechanisms within the law to prevent domestic violence against women, including providing for punishment for such a crime in the country’s Criminal Code. They also said that the Government is currently considering a bill that provides for the prevention of domestic violence and the rehabilitation for victims of domestic violence. The delegation stated that this issue along with all forms of discrimination against women is a priority for the State.
The Committee’s concluding observations state, however, that they are concerned that “despite the effort undertaken, both in terms of legislative measures and measures taken in practice, violence against women still continues, in particular domestic violence… It is also concerned at the absence of a sufficient number of safe shelters for victims of domestic violence.” The Committee thus recommends that the State party “intensify its efforts toward the elimination of violence against women… and should also consider strengthening its legislation and its application to deal effectively with domestic violence.”
2. Right to a fair trial by an independent and impartial tribunal
Another persisting problem is the lack of independence of the judiciary.
According to the information provided by the International Student Cooperation, the Legal Education Society, the Public Association for Assistance to Free Economy, and the Institute of Peace and Democracy in the “Replies,” the judiciary is currently under the supervision of the executive branch and the Judicial-Legal Council, a supposedly independent body, appears to be under the advisement and chairmanship of the Minister of Justice, who controls court proceedings. The Judicial-Legal Council also seems to lack strict standards for abuse, corruption, and violations.
The delegation’s response is that the reform of the judicial system is of central importance to them and that they are working for the further modernization and transparency of the courts. They also refuted the claim that the Judicial-Legal Council falls within the jurisdiction of the Minister of Justice and maintains that the body is truly independent. The delegation assured the Committee that they are currently working on laws and organizational measures to ensure the independence of the judiciary.
The Committee notes in its concluding observations that “the State party’s judiciary does not appear to be fully independent from the executive branch or from political pressure.” Thus, the Committee recommends, “the State party should ensure that the Judicial Council, in its composition and work, is fully independent from the Executive so as to create conditions ensuring full independence of the judiciary.”
3. Freedom of opinion and expression
In the “Replies,” the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety and the Media Rights Institute provide 10 specific cases of attacks on journalists, where the attackers went unpunished or they were acts by agents of the Government itself.
The country delegation responded by giving several examples of how the Government is “strengthening” the media, such as reducing the tax burden on the press, providing credit to newspapers, giving financial assistance to the media from the state budget, and instituting an amnesty act that released journalists from prison.
When Committee members brought up the various cases of journalists being arrested and detained on dubious charges, the delegation’s response was that journalists who have committed criminally punishable acts which are not related to their journalistic activities are equally considered under law with non-journalists. However, the fact of the matter remains that an unusual number of opposition and independent journalists are arrested on “non-journalistic” charges, such as allegations of hooliganism and drug use, which raised suspicions among the Committee members. One of the Committee members brought up the case of the two youth human rights journalists who were severely beaten by unidentified persons in June 2009 before the country delegation and the delegation responded that these young men were charged with hooliganism and detained because they were acting drunk and disorderly in a public restaurant.
The Committee stated in its concluding observations that it “remains concerned at the extensive limitations to the right to freedom of expression of the media, the closure of independent newspapers, and the removal of licenses to broadcast locally for a number of foreign radio stations. It also remains concerned at the reports of a pattern of harassment and criminal libel suits or hooliganism charges against journalists.” Therefore, the Committee recommends to the State party “to take the necessary measures to put an end to direct and indirect restrictions on freedom of expression.”
4. Freedom of association and assembly
The Society for Humanitarian Research and the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety affirm that the Government consistently regulates the freedoms of association and assembly. These restrictions include: the prohibition of peaceful political rallies of opposition parties and youth movements, their restriction to remote designated locations, the dispersion of peaceful political rallies, as well as harassment of opposition officials by security forces with impunity, especially during election campaigns. Current policies under the country’s Law on Freedom of Assembly allow police to legally stop pickets, various forms of protest, collective festivities, collective reading of newspapers, etc. and detain members of these random meetings, as noted by Florian Irminger, Head of the Geneva Office of the Human Rights House Foundation, in his statement at the opening session of the Human Rights Committee on 13 July.
The country delegation, however, insisted that there were only very few limitations to assemblies before the parliamentary elections in November 2005 and no violations at all before the presidential elections in October 2008. The delegation reported that during the election period of 2005, there were 26,000 marches and meetings held with various candidates and only 15 of these had limitations imposed on them. They also said that before the 2008 presidential elections, there were 10,200 meetings and marches with constituent members, and none of these involved any violations or complaints.
However, NGOs in Azerbaijan persistently report that authorities unreasonably restrict individuals’ right to freedom of peaceful assembly, and among them are journalists and human rights defenders. The Committee thus recommends that the State party “should re-examine its regulations, policy and practice, and ensure that all individuals under its jurisdiction fully enjoy their rights under article 21 of the Covenant…” The Committee also voiced its concern with the irregularities in regard to both the 2005 and 2008 elections and recommended to the State party that it “should take the necessary measures to ensure enjoyment by all its citizens of the rights provided for in article 25 of the Covenant.”
On 20-21 July, within the framework of 96th session of Human Rights Committee of the United Nations held in Geneva, the representative of eight human rights organizations included in the South Caucasus Network for Human Rights Defenders (Law Education Society, the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, Media Rights Institute, Defense Society for Women’s Rights named after Dilara Aliyeva, Institute for Peace and Democracy, Humanitarian Investigations Society, International Students Cooperation and Assistance to Free Economy Society) Rasul Jafarov submitted an alternative report about problems in several areas of human rights (freedom of speech, freedom of association, right to fair trial, discrimination and violence against women) in Azerbaijan and answered questions of the Committee members in connection with freedom of speech.