Letter to Members of the Presidential Committee of the PACE

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We are aware that the Presidential Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) is due to discuss an alarming state of human rights in Azerbaijan on 1 September 2014. We call on the PACE to ensure that it introduces, without delay, steps at institutional level to stop brutal, unprecedented human rights crackdown in Azerbaijan.

 As human rights defenders facing multiple forms of harassment including, inter alia, police summons, frozen personal and organizational accounts, arrest and detention, propaganda and slandering and threats of their NGO closure, we believe that steps at the institutional level could not be more timely, and we urge the Committee to give the matter the full attention it deserves. Now that the issue has captured the attention of the Presidential Committee, we believe it is time for the Bureau to act and send the motion to the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee (AS/Jur) for a more detailed legislative solution.

On August 21, 2014 Ilgar Nasibov, a journalist and human rights defender in Nakhchivan city of Azerbaijan, who has been often critical towards local government officials and has written on other sensitive issues, was seriously beaten by unidentified assailants. With this attack, which was particularly violent, the alarming deterioration of human rights record has reached the point of no-return.

 This attack should be a wake-up call to the Council of Europe institutions—PACE in particular— which remains disturbingly silent against the most dramatic crackdown on civil society and human rights coinciding with Azerbaijan’s chairmanship of the Council. The body has failed to publicly condemn its current chair for a series of outrageous violations against human rights– including recent arrests of prominent rights defenders and forceful closure of key non-governmental organizations.  

The membership of the Council of Europe includes the obligation to guarantee fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association. Not only did the Azerbaijani government fail in their binding obligations, but a similar failure to support the fulfillment of provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights marked the actions of the Council of Europe (CoE) Secretary General, the Committee of Ministers and CoE Parliamentary Assembly.

On August 8, a court in Baku charged prominent human rights defender Intigam Aliyev with tax evasion, abuse of office and illegal entrepreneurship. His lawyer, Anar Gasymly, said a court swiftly jailed Aliyev for three months pre-trial detention. Aliyev has denied the allegations and said that his arrest is politically motivated. Aliyev is a veteran rights activist for more than 20 years and one of the few Azerbaijani lawyers successfully litigating before the European Court for Human Rights. He was awarded the Homo Homini human rights award in the Czech Republic in 2013. Czech NGO People in Need states: “It is shocking that this is all happening as Azerbaijan is heading Europe’s top rights watchdog; the Council of Europe.” Aliyev has by now been recognized a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.

 On 5 August 2014, Emin Huseynov, chairman of a leading media watchdog NGO Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) and one of the most prominent human rights defenders in Azerbaijan, was prevented from traveling to Istanbul, Turkey to receive urgent medical care. The border police stopped him at the airport and informed that Prosecutor General’s office had imposed a travel ban on him.  He may face immediate arrest (and has now “gone missing”). IRFS offices have been sealed by authorities, equipment has been confiscated and activities have had to cease.

 On 2 August 2014, Rasul Jafarov, one of the most prominent young Azerbaijani human rights defenders and the Chairman of the Human Rights Club, was arrested and put under 3-month pre-trial detention under the same (bogus) charges of tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship and abuse of power as Intigam Aliyev. Prior to that, his personal bank account has been put under arrest and a travel ban has been imposed on him with the confiscation of his passport. He has by now been recognized a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. 

The charges against Jafarov stem from the Human Rights Club’s lack of state registration. The NGO was established in December 2010 and has made numerous unsuccessful attempts to register. Human Rights Club’s complaint is pending before the European Court of Human Rights. The CoE Commissioner for Human Rights Niels Muiznieks raised concern over the case of Human Rights Club in his report following his visit to Azerbaijan in May 2013. Rasul Jafarov is one of the most outspoken critics of politically motivated prosecution in Azerbaijan. Among other activities, Rasul Jafarov has been actively advocating for the release of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, including on the appointment of a special rapporteur on political prisoners in Azerbaijan at the Council of Europe. Until his detention, together with several other local NGOs, Rasul Jafarov was working on the compilation of a comprehensive list of political prisoners to be presented to a newly appointed rapporteur, however, he himself ended up on the list.

 Another prominent human rights defender Leyla Yunus actively focusing on the politically motivated prosecutions was put to 3-month pre-trial detention under charges of high treason, forgery and tax evasion on 30 July 2014. Leyla Yunus has been focusing on politically motivated persecutions in Azerbaijan for many years and also been involved in projects aimed at improving people-to-people dialogue in Azerbaijan and Armenia. On 5 August 2014, her husband Arif has been sentenced to 3-month pre-trial detention under the same charges.

 Similar charges were brought against Anar Mammadli, the Chairperson of Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre, the only domestic election watchdog, and its Executive Director Bashir Suleymanli, who were sentenced to 5 years ad 6 months and 3 years and 6 months in prison respectively in May 2014. The charges of tax evasion, illegal business and abuse of power against them followed soon after the critical report was released by their organization on the Azerbaijani presidential elections in November 2014.

 On 14 July 2014, Hasan Huseynli, the President of Ganja-based „Intelligent Citizen” Enlightenment Center Public Union acting in Ganja, was convicted on dubious charges of armed hooliganism and unlawfully carrying a cold weapon and sentenced to 6 years in prison.

 As the examples illustrate, the right to freedom of association is at the heart of the latest crackdown on human rights defenders and their NGOs in Azerbaijan. The charges against the prominent NGO leaders directly target the activities of their organizations. Charges such as ‘illegal business’ (followed by tax evasion) has no legal basis in either national or international law as grants-based human rights projects of NGOs do not qualify as business activity. The charge of ‘abuse of power’ is equally irrelevant as the position of a chairman of an NGO does not entail any official powers. Repressive amendments related to NGO operation adopted in February 2013 and February 2014 further pave the way to restrict the space for NGO activities despite the fact that the Venice Commission concluded that the NGO laws in Azerbaijan do not meet international standards back in 2011.

By arresting these prominent human rights defenders, the authorities are sending an unambiguous message to activists to stop their human rights advocacy and activities. Moreover, such interference  prevents the proper functioning of NGOs and paralyzes their work, which in turn results in silence regarding human rights abuses in the country. The arrests all are representative of the escalation of the government’s broader legal persecution of NGOs in Azerbaijan – where restrictions to operation of national pro-democracy NGOs in Azerbaijan left civil society with no choice but to operate outside the strict legal framework, which was then used by authorities as a pretext for their criminal prosecution.

 In a similar line, on May 13, the Serious Crimes Investigation Department of the Prosecutor General’s Office, launched a criminal case (#142006023) against a number of foreign and local NGOs under Articles 308.1 (power abuse) and 313 (service forgery) of the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan Republic “on the fact of irregularities found in the activities of a number of NGOs of Azerbaijan Republic, and branches or representative offices of foreign NGOs”. Among those targeted are internationally recognized organizations such as International Media Support (Denmark), IREX (United States), National Democratic Institute (United States), National Endowment for Democracy (United States) and Oxfam (United Kingdom). Organizational bank accounts of more than 20 local NGOs and the personal ones of their leaders have been put under arrest, which led to de facto closure of those NGOs. Several leaders of NGOs have already been summoned at the prosecutor’s office for interrogations.

In response to these legal actions against NGOs, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović has deplored the intensifying harassment of media freedom activists and organizations, most recently IRFS and its Chair Emin Huseynov. “The attempts to raid the IRFS office, intimidation of Emin Huseynov’s family and the imposed travel ban are further proof of a wide-scale deterioration of the media freedom situation in Azerbaijan that includes targeted persecution of independent journalists, freedom of expression advocates and bloggers” Mijatović said. “I once again call on the authorities to stop the continued persecution of media and free voices in the country.”There are now more than 10 members of the media in prison, convicted or awaiting a trial: The highest number in Azerbaijan the OSCE media freedom representative’s Office has observed since its establishment – reads the statement from Mijatovic.

Three senior United Nations human rights experts issued a statement on August 19 expressing concern at the arrests of Aliyev, Leyla and Arif Yunus, and Rasul Jafarov: “We are alarmed at the wave of politically-motivated repression of activists in reprisal for their legitimate work in documenting and reporting human rights violations,” said a joint statement by Michel Forst, Maina Kiai and David Kaye, the UN rapporteurs for human rights defenders, the right to peaceful assembly, and freedom of expression, respectively. “The state’s primary responsibility should be to protect its civil society activists from intimidation, harassment, threats or attacks.”

 On sanctions against member states, the provisions of the Statute of the Council of Europe and of the UN Charter both refer to either serious violations or persistent violations of their obligations by such states. This is how the term “persistent” is interpreted in international law: first, there must be repeated violations; secondly, the term “persistently” points to a stubborn resolve to continue the law-breaking practice; thirdly, the “persistent violation” formula emphasizes a “quantitative” and a “qualitative” aspect. The importance of the principle violated can also be taken into consideration. The criteria mentioned in rule 8.2.b of the Assembly’s Rules of Procedure have therefore been met.

Against this background, Azerbaijan should not continue holding a key leadership role in an organization that is central to promoting the protection of human rights in Europe. We call on the PACE  to hold an urgent debate during the IV part session to vote for suspension of Azerbaijan’s chairmanship over the Committee of Ministers; challenging the credentials of Azerbaijani delegation on substantial grounds under Rule 8 of the Assembly Rules of Procedures; and to energetically engage the Azerbaijani government in talks on how to significantly improve its record on human rights, including freedoms of expression and association, in part so that the decision on suspension of voting rights eventually can be reconsidered.

 We call on you as a member of the Presidential Committee to:

  Table a request for an urgent or current affairs debate, in line with rules 50 and 52 of the Assembly’s Rules of Procedure to discuss steps at the institutional level to address human rights crackdown in Azerbaijan.

Follow up on the fate of the motion for a resolution Azerbaijan’s Chairmanship of the Council of Europe: What follow-up on respect for human rights? (document 13484); send an inquiry to the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee to request detailed information on the work that has been done by the Committee, and rapporteur Pedro Agramunt in particular, to examine cases of politically-motivated imprisonment in Azerbaijan.

 Urge the immediate and unconditional release of those who have been imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedoms of expression, assembly and association and to ensure that those imprisoned on politically motivated charges are released or given a fair trial.

Condemn the continuing clampdown on fundamental freedoms and demand that the Azerbaijani authorities end the harassment, intimidation, arbitrary detention and criminal prosecution of those who legitimately exercise their right to freedoms of expression, assembly and association.

Compel the Azerbaijani government to honor its commitment to release all political prisoners, including journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders in prison or detention in connection with exercising their fundamental rights, and to stop using the courts to imprison critics and opponents.

On September 1 and 2, the Presidential Committee and the Bureau should ensure a substantive discussion and continuation of the Assembly’s work to stop an unprecedented human rights crackdown in Azerbaijan; to put an end to the anti-NGO witch hunt and secure the release and fair trial of all those who are illegally detained in Azerbaijan. In Resolution 1031 (1994), the Assembly observed “that all member States of the Council of Europe are required to respect their obligations under the Statute, the ECHR and all other Conventions to which they are parties. In the same resolution, the Assembly warned that “persistent failure to honor commitments freely entered into will have consequences […]. For this purpose, the Assembly could use the relevant provisions of the Council of Europe’s Statute and of its own Rules of Procedure.” As a member of an Assembly which represents the people of Europe and has proved principled in addressing serious human rights violations, you have every reason to be part of the much needed solution for Azerbaijan’s political prisoners. The subsequent use of your powers under the Rules of Procedure may be well crucial in order to safeguard Council’s democratic values and civil rights.

 Faithfully, …
August 28, 2014

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