Azerbaijan: Human rights record still not roadworthy as Formula 1 hits Baku

The international community must not be duped by surface-level efforts to smooth out Azerbaijan’s human rights record, which remains dire, said Amnesty International in new research published today, ahead of this week’s inaugural Formula 1 Grand Prix of Europe race in Baku.

“The arrival of the world’s premier racing series in Baku must not steer attention away from the government onslaught on civil society,” said Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director of Europe and Central Asia.

“Behind the glitz lies an everyday reality in which authorities have shut down NGOs and arrested or harassed their leaders.”

Since the beginning of 2016, faced with falling oil revenues and rising international pressure, the Azerbaijani authorities have released several dozen prisoners. Among those released are twelve prisoners of conscience, including award-winning investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova.

While widely welcomed internationally, these pardons have neither addressed any of the long-standing human rights concerns in Azerbaijan, nor put an end to the practice of arrests of government critics on fabricated charges.

“The recent release of NGO leaders and activists should not fool anyone into thinking that the wind in Baku is blowing in a different direction.  Those released are no freer to speak out now than they were while they were in jail. Their vacant cells have been filled with new victims,” said Denis Krivosheev.

The long road ahead

Amnesty International has documented 14 prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan today and there are, in all likelihood, many more. New research published today reveals a spate of new arrests on trumped-up charges of government critics and the relatives of those still speaking out from abroad.

As recently as 10 May youth activists Bayram Mammadov and Giyas Ibrahimov were detained on spurious drug-related charges the day after posting a photo showing the statue of former president Heydar Aliyev on which they had painted a political protest message. They told their lawyer that the drugs had been planted on them by police. If convicted, the activists face up to 12 years in prison.

Some of the recently released prisoners, including civic leaders and staff members of NGOs, are at high risk of re-arrest.They are also blocked from resuming their work.

Intigam Aliyev ran an NGO defending victims of persecution and representing them at the European Court of Human Rights until he was arrested in August 2014. He was eventually sentenced to seven and a half years in prison on bogus charges of tax avoidance, illegal entrepreneurship and abuse of power. Intigam was released on 28 March 2016, but has not been cleared of charges which means he cannot practice as a lawyer and cannot travel abroad without special permission. His bank accounts are frozen and his NGO remains closed.

“Azerbaijan has assiduously courted international events as a smokescreen for its petroleum-fuelled repression – and what could be more fitting then than Formula 1? Its roar and heady fumes must not be allowed to drown out the snuffed cries of Azerbaijan’s beleaguered human rights campaigners,” said Denis Krivosheev.

Read the report: “Revolving doors”: The ongoing persecution of government critics in Azerbaijan