Azeri government cracks down on freedom of expression

Police arrest and disperse activists on the pro-democracy demo in Baku

22nd May 2012

Dozens of pro-democracy campaigners were arrested in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, yesterday as they took part in an unauthorised protest to highlight human rights abuses in the run-up to Eurovision.

The Sing for Democracy campaign, which organised the rally outside the old city, also called on performers to speak out during live performances and interviews against the lack of political and media freedom the country endures.

The authoritarian government has been highly criticised by human rights organisations and some foreign governments for rigged elections, clamping down on independent and critical media, false imprisonment, and even torture.

It is the first time the former soviet state and little-known country in the south Caucasus has hosted an international event of this size and activists hope to take advantage of the presence of the world’s media to get their message out.

Visitors to the newly developed capital could be forgiven for being oblivious to the country’s ills, but those who organise, speak-out or stand against the regime of the oil-rich state have found themselves publicly smeared, viciously attacked, jailed on trumped-up charges and even murdered over the years.

Conditions in the country have deteriorated over the past decade since Ilham Aliyev took over as president from his father and former Russian politburo member and Azerbaijani communist party leader and KGB chief, Heydar, in a dynastic handover in 2003.

British entrant Engelbert Humperdink perused old carpets and trinkets in Baku’s Old City as pro-democracy campaigners were arrested metres away.

At the time of writing there was no news of those arrested today, but last week a student and bass player of an Azeri rap band, which played at an opposition rally, was illegally drafted into the army after its rapper, Natiq Kamilov, criticised the President’s wife.

Kamilov, who was released after ten days following international coverage of his arrest, said he was tortured during detention and has since fled the country convinced it’s unsafe for him to remain.

Relatives of arrestees working within government or government-controlled companies – of which there are many – are also targeted and forced out of their jobs as punishment and to scare others from standing-up against the corrupt regime.

Azerbaijan’s most famous investigative journalist was recently viciously smeared after highlighting massive corruption at the highest levels of government where family members and trusted friends of the president are given plum positions in state departments and companies.

Khadija Ismailova, who reports for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, was threatened with blackmail after, she believes, state security services filmed her having sex in her apartment.

However the plan backfired after she went public, despite the risk of a backlash amongst the socially conservative population, with even the most religious groups defending her and lambasting the government for such low tactics as the video was published on a fake opposition website.

Billions of pounds have been spent making central Baku into a picture of modern capitalist happiness

And when two activists, Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade, posted a video on Youtube in 2009 of a press conference mocking government corruption after it listed the purchase of two donkeys from Germany for £40,000, they were set-upon by thugs a week later as they ate in a restaurant.

They were subsequently arrested and charged with violent behaviour when they reported the incident to police while their attackers were released without charged.

The pair were sentenced to two and two and a half years respectively until they were released last year following huge international pressure.

Thousands of people have also been evicted from their homes, often with little notice or compensation and nowhere to go, by representatives of the state to make way for new buildings and infrastructure including the fancy new hall the Eurovision contest will be held in.

Only recently a journalist was beaten unconscious as he documented such evictions by the state oil company SOCAR in Baku.

Idrak Abbasov believes the private security guards intended to kill him while police watched on.

While those arrested yesterday can expect to be dealt with more leniently or have any court cases delayed until after Eurovision it is far from clear whether the international media’s attention and scrutiny will have a lasting impact beyond next week without further international govermental pressure.

However, if past performance is anything to go by the Council of Europe, which sets democratic and legal standards to its member states of which Azerbaijan is one, should not be relied on to act.

Despite regular reports to its parliamentary assembly on the state of affairs in Azerbaijan, the CoE has reduced its criticism and even begun praising the President for his attempts at reform despite the special rapporteur charged with assessing the treatment and situation of political prisoners being denied a visa for the past two years.

A report is due out imminently revealing why the CoE has failed to act, however, its author, Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative, warned it was not just a matter of lobbying and free trips to MPs that is keeping them quiet, but refused to be drawn on the cause before publication.

It should not be forgotten that Azerbaijan, sandwiched between energy suppliers Iran and Russia, is proving to be an attractive and reliable alternative to its soon-to-be sanctioned and unpredictable neighbours.

Naturally, the government denies it rigs elections and abusing its citizens’ human rights while accusing the media of failing to meet moral standards, but with defamation being a criminal offence it essentially makes criticising members of the government illegal.

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