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End of mission statement by Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

Azerbaijan

Visit to Azerbaijan
22 September 2016

Good morning ladies and gentlemen,

This is my first visit to Azerbaijan, a country that has undergone significant changes over the past decades and that faces many geopolitical challenges. Let me begin by warmly thanking the Government of Azerbaijan for inviting me and for its cooperation throughout this visit. The objective of my visit was to assess, in the spirit of cooperation and dialogue, the environment in which human rights defenders and civil society operate in the country.

Today, I will confine myself to some preliminary observations and recommendations on some of the main issues, which will be elaborated in more detail in the report once I review the materials and documents that I have gathered during the visit. I will present my final report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, in March 2017.

At the outset, I wish to note that I am not employed by the United Nations and the position I hold is honorary. As an independent expert, I exercise my professional and impartial judgement and report directly to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.

I would like to commend the Government of Azerbaijan for its excellent cooperation and efforts to ensure that I could make the most of my visit. I have met with high-level representatives of the Presidential Administration, State Security Service, Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Internal Affairs, Taxes, Communication and Justice. I also had a chance to meet with the senior officials from the Supreme Court, Prosecutor-General office, Ombudsman and the State Support Council for NGOs. I also met with the UN Resident Coordinator and other United Nations agencies, Council of Europe and various members of the diplomatic corps.

We had extensive discussions with a wide range of human rights defenders, including those who are in detention, reinforcing my overall impression of a vulnerable situation of civil society in Azerbaijan.

I would like to thank everyone who took the time to meet with me and shared their valuable experiences and insights, as well as those who helped organize this visit.

Ladies and gentlemen, 

In line with the international human rights law, the primary duty to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms lies with the State. This includes the duty of the Azerbaijani Government to guarantee the right of everyone, individually and in association with others, to strive for the protection and realization of human rights. In other words, every one of us has the right to defend all human rights for all.

The State of Azerbaijan is therefore under the obligation to take steps to create necessary conditions, including in the political and legal domains, in order to ensure that everyone in the country can enjoy all those rights and freedoms, in practice. Ensuring a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders is a principal part of this responsibility.

My visit has focused primarily on assessing some of the main elements of such an enabling environment, namely: a conducive legal, institutional and administrative framework; access to justice; a strong and independent national human rights institution; effective protection policies and mechanisms paying attention to groups at risk; non-State actors that respect and support the work of defenders; and a strong and dynamic community of defenders.

As you may know, the UN has a very extensive and broad definition of human rights defenders, which has been enshrined in the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by consensus in December 1998. During the visit, I have had the opportunity to refer, on many occasions, to this definition. I recalled that human rights defenders are those who, individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights, nationally and internationally, in a peaceful manner. They are members of civil society organizations, journalists, bloggers, whistleblowers, as well as political activists who advocate for the rights to free speech, free assembly, and free and fair elections. They do not need to belong to any registered organisation to be a human rights defender. They can be ordinary men and women, who believe in the universality of human rights and act to defend them. They are agents of change, safeguarding democracy and ensuring that it remains open, pluralistic and participatory. They defend the principles of the rule of law and good governance. Without human rights defenders and without their invaluable contribution, our societies would be far less free, and far less hopeful.

I urge the Government of Azerbaijan and the international community to persistently refer to this universally recognized definition of human rights defenders, as it could help raise their profile and acceptance in broader society.

Dear members of the media,

Despite the protection under national and international law that guarantees the right to freedom of expression, Azerbaijan has continued to face challenges in ensuring enabling environment for the media and journalists. Independent media outlets have been frequently targeted. Their licenses have often been withdrawn for the expression of critical views. For example, in December 2014, the Government suspended the activity of Radio Azadliq/Liberty in the context of broader criminal persecution against civil society. Meydan TV was forced to terminate its broadcast in the same month in 2014. Its editor and director both had to flee abroad, and many of its journalists are banned from travelling abroad and their bank accounts are still frozen. Just two month ago, in July, the offices of ANS TV/Radio were closed as part of an investigation related to their coverage of the situation of the attempted coup d’état in Turkey.

I have also received reports of severe pressure put against independent newspapers, which has included the closure of Khural and Zerkalo newspapers, to name but two examples. I am also aware of journalists, who were arrested on fabricated charges. I met Seymur Hazi, a reporter of Azadliq newspaper and a leading anchor for “Azerbaijan Saati”, who was arrested in August 2014 and imprisoned for five years on the fabricated charge of hooliganism. A month ago, Faiq Amirov, financial director of the same newspaper, was placed in pre-trial detention for storing and spreading books and electronic data related to Fethula Gulen and for having links with the group called “Hizmet imamlari”. His detention has led to the freeze of the newspaper’s financial accounts.

In September 2015, the lawsuit against Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent investigative journalist, resulted in her imprisonment to 7.5 years under charges of embezzlement and tax evasion. She was released in May 2016 on probation, under the ban from traveling abroad for five years. Thus far, I have been informed of at least 20 journalists and bloggers who have been sanctioned in some way.

I have also been informed that authorities put pressure on private companies to discourage them from advertising with critical and independent newspapers and media outlets, which has decreased their financial sustainability and curtailed their activities.

Moreover, some of the NGOs working on the protection of freedom of expression have been investigated or closed down. For example, Media Rights Institute and Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety have been effectively closed. Besides the leaders of those organizations, their former employees have been affected by the ongoing investigations and their bank accounts have been frozen for several years now. The closure of these NGOs has also created a gap in the protection of freedom of expression and defence of the rights of journalists.

My initial observations indicate that access to information for civil society is restricted in Azerbaijan, despite existent legislation on access to information. The traditional approach by authorities to the requests for information is that of rejection. Human rights defenders therefore are obliged to seek information through courts, which are not considered to be fully independent from the Government.

Moreover, since the June 2013 changes to the legislative framework, it is not possible to obtain information on the ownership of companies and broadcasters, which has now become a commercial secret. This has hindered not only the work of anti-corruption NGOs but also the overall Government’s efforts to promote transparency and combat corruption. The argument used for the legal change, namely that previously free information was frequently abused or used to “blackmail” individuals is not convincing. Azerbaijan has had relevant legislative and policy tools at its disposal to protect individuals from possible cases of blackmail.

Currently, denied requests for information can be challenged through courts, which have proven to take the relevant authorities’ side, or through the office of the Ombudsman whose mandate has been ineffective in that regard.

We have also received testimonies that individuals who report corruption or other abuses of authority through official channels have faced retaliation from the accused perpetrators. The Government need to do more to ensure protection of such whistleblowers.

From my discussions with all stakeholders, I acknowledge the broad access to the Internet in Azerbaijan, including the growing use of social media. However, there are increased reports of retaliation for views expressed on the Internet, including criminal charges related to critical opinions. For example, Mehman Huseynov, a well-known human rights blogger, was briefly detained and released in June 2012, but the investigation against him is still open, he is banned from travelling abroad and his identity card was confiscated. Fuad Gahramanli, formerly a prisoner of conscience, was arrested in December 2015, after posting on Facebook calls on people to protect their rights, a call that led to a criminal charge for making “public appeals against the state and inciting national and religious hatred”.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The right to freedom of assembly is protected under international law. It is critical for human rights defenders to mobilize the population and encourage social dialogue on critical issues. Despite this, Azerbaijani authorities put limitations on the right to peaceful protest through regulating assembly in a broad range of circumstances. Requests for public assemblies especially by critical civil society or in the regions have reportedly been most of the time denied, delayed or approved in areas that are remote or unconducive to public meetings. I have been informed of incidents of violent responses to peaceful protests and arrests of peaceful demonstrators.  Private companies, including hotels, have sometimes denied their services to oppositional activists to hold meetings in their premises, lest they receive a negative reaction from the Government.

I have also found out that the Government has applied so-called “preventive measures” to peaceful protests, when organisers and participants of public rallies are warned or temporarily arrested prior to the event. In this regard, I have compiled a list of at least 45 individuals and human rights defenders, who have been targeted through warnings, arrests and detention prior to the peaceful assemblies on 17 September, which were held in relation to the upcoming referendum on constitutional amendments. I have forwarded this list to the Government, and look forward to their clarifications.

I have been struck to observe the drastic impediments to the right to freedom of association, caused by the 2013-2015 legislative amendments to laws regulating civil society operations. The already challenging environment for NGOs has turned into a total crisis.   

Even if the legislation does not ban NGO activities without state registration, NGOs are effectively prevented from operating because they cannot open a bank account, obtain a legal entity status or receive foreign funding. Furthermore, NGOs have to register every change to founding papers or factual prerequisites (for example, change of address or phone) and obtain an extract of a registration certificate to continue their work. Any failure to comply with this onerous requirement is sanctioned through administrative liability.

Foreign NGOs risk liability for operating local branches without state registration. They are required to enter into an agreement of a limited duration with the Government, and seek a formal approval of their compliance with such vague criteria as “respect for national and moral values of Azerbaijani nation”. Any failure to comply with this requirement results in heavy financial penalties.

The new rules have granted broad discretions to the Government, which has led to the increased number of organizations either being denied registration or operating without one, facing later possible criminal persecution, as a result.  

Access to funding has been severely curtailed as a result of the latest legislative amendments. Currently, both donor organizations and donor recipients are required to obtain approval from state authorities before the funded activity can be implemented. In effect, there is a 3-step complicated procedure for a grant to be made accessible: 1) a donor organization must obtain a permission to provide grants; 2) NGOs must register grant agreements; and 3) NGOs must register each service agreement signed with any foreign organization, company or individual before it is implemented. Furthermore, the new laws on NGOs have increased administrative penalties for NGOs and allow the suspension of their activities for one year for non-compliance with the regulations.

My preliminary observations point to the large-scale persecution of domestic and international NGOs in Azerbaijan since 2014. Dozens of such NGOs have been subjected to seizure of organization’s bank accounts and those of its leaders; repeated interrogation of employees of NGOs; tax inspections of NGO financial activities with heavy penalties as a result; degrading and discriminatory physical checks of NGO staff at border crossing points; and closure of those NGOs.

Numerous employees of the affected NGOs have been banned from travelling abroad and their bank accounts have been frozen. Prominent NGO leaders were arrested, convicted or exiled abroad. I have a list of the NGOs and human rights defenders who have been targeted this way, and intend to seek further clarifications from the Government on the motives for such punitive actions. I urge the Government to move away from such a defensive and punitive attitude to NGOs, and instead embrace a more supportive approach to civil society, even if those organizations may be critical or oppositional to the Government.  

Distinguished colleagues,

In Azerbaijan, human rights lawyers increasingly face challenges through a number of means, including criminal prosecutions, disciplinary action, and other administrative measures. This is despite the State’s obligation to guarantee that lawyers can discharge their professional duties and functions and their rights are protected. In my view, disbarments of human rights lawyers, together with criminal prosecutions, searches and freezing of their assets are part of the broader harassment facing human rights defenders in the country. The well-known cases of Intigam Aliyev, Aslan Ismayilov and Alaif Hasanov demonstrate the intimidation of independent lawyers through detention and lawsuits. The removal of lawyers from sensitive cases and holding them as a witness in the same case was used against Yalcin Imanov, for example, when he was defending employees of Radio Azadliq/Liberty in December 2014. 

For those lawyers who are members of the bar association, disciplinary proceedings have been one of the main means of retaliation for their human rights or professional activities. I have reviewed the cases of at least four lawyers (Khalid Bagirov, Muzaffar Bakhsiyev, Alaif Hasanov and Aslan Ismayilov), who have been unjustifiably disbarred from the Bar Association. This is despite the fact that, in practice, the Bar Association suffers from significant institutional weaknesses, which raise serious questions about its legitimacy and puts the ability of the body to effectively regulate the profession in severe doubt.

Ladies and gentlemen,

While preparing for this visit, I have received a number of documents and reports by various UN human rights mechanisms and recommendations from the last Universal Periodic Review of Azerbaijan. I have also reviewed numerous documents from the Organization on the Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as from the Council of Europe, including the European Court of Human Rights, Venice Commission, Committee for the Prevention of Torture, and Parliamentary Assembly. What is striking is that they all point to the same assessment of the worsening situation of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan. They make a number of recommendations addressed to the Government, urging it to alleviate the administrative and judicial burden placed on human rights defenders, facilitate access to international funding and recognize the positive role played by civil society organizations.

Human rights defenders see the European Court of Human Rights as the ultimate arbitrator on their appeals, when they are rejected in the domestic courts. However, the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights are not executed by the Government in cases related to human rights defenders (for example, Ilgar Mammadov), despite numerous calls from the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. 

In the same vein, most, if not all, of recommendations by the international and regional mechanisms have yet to be implemented. Many start questioning the willingness of the Government of Azerbaijan to fulfil its international commitments and conform to binding obligations under international and regional human rights laws.

I strongly recommend the establishment of an inter-institutional mechanism that would support the Government in formulating a plan of action to implement recommendations from international and regional organizations. Human rights defenders and civil society organizations should be involved in developing and implementing this initiative, with the assistance of international and regional partners and organizations.

Distinguished members of the media,

I have shared with the Government my preliminary conclusion that, over the last two-three years, the civil society in Azerbaijan has faced the worst situation since the independence of the country. Dozens of NGOs, their leaders, employees and their families have been subject to administrative and legal persecution, including the seizure of their assets and bank accounts, travel bans, enormous tax penalties and even imprisonment.

Civil society has been paralyzed as a result of such intense pressure. Human rights defenders have been accused by public officials to be a fifth column of the Western governments, or foreign agents, which has led to misperception in the population of the truly valuable role played by civil society. Activists promoting fundamental freedoms and criticizing violations have been accused of being political opponents, touting values that run counter to those of their society or culture. They were denounced as politically or financially motivated actors. They were attacked, threatened or brought to court and sentenced under such charges as “hooliganism”, “money-laundering”, “provocation”, “drug-trafficking” or incitement to overthrow the State. Defenders have faced smear campaigns in attempt to discredit their work, by relegating them to political opposition, or indeed as traitors. The demonization of defenders has been exacerbated by the lack of awareness within civil society of the mechanisms they can resort to and tools they can use to boost their legitimacy and protection.

My message today is - those individuals who defend human rights in Azerbaijan should be seen as heroes, not traitors. They are agents of change, a change for the free and fair Azerbaijani society. I have talked to them and heard their moving stories. They should be embraced, not rejected. I therefore encourage the Government to build bridges with civil society organizations, and to establish a regular and meaningful dialogue with human rights defenders, ensuring broad and inclusive participation. I believe such dialogue and partnership is ultimately in the interest of the Azerbaijani State. 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I look forward to a continued constructive dialogue with the Government on the situation of human rights defenders in the country. As my mandate was also established to provide advice to governments, I remain available to cooperate and provide any technical assistance the Government may require in the review and implementation of my recommendations. I am also ready to support any endeavours by the Government in reviewing the current legislation and practices to bring them in line with international standards. This has been the agreed goal of the visit, and I am committed to see it through. 

I would like to conclude by reiterating my preliminary recommendations for the consideration of various stakeholders.

I recommend that the Government:

  • Ensure that human rights defenders can carry out their work in a conducive legal and administrative framework, taking into account recommendations by international and regional human rights mechanisms.
  • Refrain from criminalizing defenders’ peaceful and legitimate activities, and instead support the work of independent civil society, despite possible disagreements.
  • Release all human rights defenders in detention, drop criminal charges against NGO leaders and employees, rescind travel bans and unblock their bank accounts in line with the resolutions and recommendations from international and regional mechanisms. 
  • Review and abolish all administrative and legislative provisions that restrict the rights of defenders, including to freedoms of expression, assembly and association, and ensure that domestic legislation respects basic principles relating to international human rights law and standards.
  • Make registrations of associations more simple, non-onerous and expeditious and adopt ‘notification procedure’, and review the current NGO legislation to ensure more simplified and accessible funding to civil society. 
  • Ensure that restrictions to peaceful assembly do not impair the essence of the right, are prescribed by law, are proportionate and ‘necessary in a democratic society’, and still allow demonstrations to take place within ‘sight and sound’ of its object and target audience.

I recommend that human rights defenders:

  • Develop national platforms or networks aimed at protecting defenders and facilitating coordination within civil society.
  • Become more informed of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and publicize it broadly in society.

I recommend that international community:

  • Intensify efforts to empower and support human rights defenders and civil society organizations in Azerbaijan.
  • Publicize the UN Declaration on human rights defenders and take measures for its broader dissemination among civil society and the wider public.
  • Support dialogue and collaboration between the Government of Azerbaijan and civil society organizations in order to ensure human rights in institution-building, development and other programmes and ensure the protection of human rights defenders in these programmes.