Daniel Hamilton works in government relations and is a former Conservative councillor. He writes in a solely personal capacity. Follow Daniel on Twitter.
On Wednesday, two key
resolutions will be debated in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of
Europe concerning human rights in Azerbaijan.
Such resolutions will be crucial in persuading President Aliyev and the Azeri
government to pursue much needed human rights reforms in a country where
stunning economic success has yet to be matched with respect for freedom of
expression and assembly. With the outcome of the vote on a knife-edge,
Conservative delegates must send a clear message in support of democracy and
freedom of speech and vote in favour.
The first resolution, authored by Maltese MP Joseph Grech and Spanish Senator
Pedro Agramunt calls upon the Assembly to endorse a report prepared by the
Council of Europe’s special envoys for Azerbaijan outlining “growing concerns
with regard to rule of law and respect for human rights’, and calling for the
“full implementation” of basic freedoms including freedom of expression,
freedom of assembly and freedom of association.
The second resolution focuses on the issue of political prisoners in
Azerbaijan; including journalists, bloggers and peaceful protesters sentenced
to lengthy prison terms for opposing the Aliyev government. The report
concludes that the judicial process in Azerbaijan “can be and appears to be
abused for political ends, in order to intimidate, silence, or otherwise
neutralise opponents seen as threats by the ruling elite, both activists of
secular or religious opposition parties and independent civil society
activists, lawyers, human rights defenders, and journalists”.
In a telling sign, the report’s author German MP Christoph Strässer was denied
a visa by the Azerbaijani government for three years, preventing him from
entering country in order to meet with opposition activists and others opposed
to the Aliyev regime.
The adoption of these resolutions is a crucial step in ensuring Azerbaijan
complies with promises it has made to the UK Government to bring about
democratic and judicial reforms. Such reforms are painfully
Since the adoption of the country’s current constitution in 1995, Azerbaijan
has not held a single free and fair election. There is currently not a
single opposition Member of Parliament sitting in the country’s National
In 2011 alone, 50 domestic and foreign journalists were harassed or attacked
while more than 70 political prisoners remain behind bars.
While President Aliyev authorised the release of a number of political
prisoners in December, scores of journalists and human rights activists remain
behind bars. Hooliganism charges are still pending against photographer
Mehman Huseynov, human rights activist Ogtay Gulaliyev and student union leader
Dayanat Babayev; all of whom face the threat of significant jail time if
Journalists continue to be regularly threatened, assaulted or harassed with
impunity in Azerbaijan, while carrying out, or in retaliation for, their
work. Indeed, the independent human rights organisation Freedom House
supported by former US President Bill Clinton ranks Azerbaijan's press as
"not free", indicating that the country has one of the world's most
hostile media environments.
There have been no serious investigations or prosecutions into the dozens of
physical attacks against journalists in recent years, including into the
murders of newspaper editor Elmar Huseynov in 2005 and writer and journalist
Rafiq Tagi in 2011.
In 2012, there were many cases of violence against journalists, as they covered
the protests leading up to and surrounding the Eurovision Song Contest, held in
Baku last May, which were often dispersed by the police using excessive force.
In April 2012, reporter and Index on Censorship award winner Idrak Abbasov, was
brutally beaten and hospitalised while documenting house demolitions by the
state-owned oil company SOCAR. One month earlier, Khadija Ismayilova, one
of the few independent investigative journalists, who has investigated
high-level corruption in Azerbaijan, was the subject of a vicious smear
campaign including the release illegally-recorded footage of her engaged in sex
act online. Nobody has been brought to justice in either case.
There has also been a recent crackdown on the right to freedom of assembly and
In November 2012, new legislation was introduced increasing punishments for
those involved in unauthorized protests. Fines for taking part in such
protests were increased to up to £1,000 for participants and £3,000 for
organisers. The law came into effect on 1 January. On 12th
January, a protest was held in the centre of Baku in reaction to the suspicious
death of an army cadet. More than twenty men were subsequently charged
and fined various amounts ranging from 300 to 600 manat (roughly equivalent to
With the lack of free independent media and the restrictions on citizens’
ability to freely express their views through protest actions, the internet
remains a key realm for freedom of expression. However, it has become
increasingly encroached upon with the Azerbaijani government blocking select
websites featuring opposition views, and monitoring the internet use of protest
leaders. Many of the journalists, bloggers and activists charged or arrested
appear to have been targeted by the authorities because they have expressed
critical political views online.
Azerbaijan’s story is not solely a negative one. Fuelled by oil exports,
the country has made impressive economic advances in recent years. Baku’s
glistening, modernistic skyline and the progressively-improving living
standards of the country’s people are testament to that success.
Additionally, the government has gone to great lengths to tackle Islamic
extremism and its root causes.
Despite all of these positive advances, human rights concerns remain an inconvenient
afterthought for President Aliyev and his government. If Azerbaijan
wishes – and it does – to be seen as a modern, democratic nation, it can no
longer put off much needed reforms.