There may soon be no independent civil society work left in Azerbaijan. The government has virtually cut off NGOs from foreign funding and systematically persecutes critics. Under these circumstances, many are forced into exile. Remaining independent organizations are struggling to survive.
The Political Situation in Azerbaijan
“Caviar diplomacy” – this is the name given to the strategy of President Ilcham Aliyev’s regime to burnish Azerbaijan’s international reputation through targeted favors. The despotically ruled Azerbaijan is presented as a progressive state that attaches great importance to culture and the common good. To this end, the Heydar Aliyev Foundation generously sponsors cultural projects in Europe and the United States, such as work on the Louvre or the Vatican. Despite various promises, however, the country’s education sector remains underfunded.
Politicians also receive money, cars, expensive jewelry, or are financed on luxury trips: As the international research network Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) uncovered, numerous members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), who are sent by the national parliaments of the Council of Europe members, were bribed.
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Repression against NGOs
Despite obvious inconsistencies, MPs described the 2013 election as “free, fair and transparent.” In the year following the election, when Azerbaijan held the presidency of the Council of Europe of all places, there was an unprecedented wave of repression against the local NGO scene. The department of the Prosecutor General’s Office of Azerbaijan responsible for capital crimes took up the so-called NGO Case No. 142006023. Hundreds of NGOs active in the fields of democracy, human rights, election monitoring, legal advice and media freedom were summoned for questioning in an attempt to intimidate their employees.
Leading activists who did not manage to flee abroad in time or did not want to leave their homes were arrested on flimsy charges. Many of them were sentenced to several years in prison. But a PACE resolution to release political prisoners in Azerbaijan failed to pass because the majority of parliamentarians voted against it. Although the regime released some of the more prominent prisoners in a symbolic act in 2016, many remained in custody.
Threat of expulsion from the Council of Europe
Because Azerbaijan consistently refuses to implement rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, such as those on the release of political prisoners, proceedings to expel the country from the Council of Europe were initiated in October 2017. The procedure is being used for the first time in the Council of Europe’s history. Local NGOs hope that Azerbaijan will remain in the Council of Europe so that they can continue to exert pressure against the government at the level. Elections will be held in Azerbaijan in October 2018. President Aliyev will do everything he can to secure a fourth term, which has been seven years since a constitutional amendment in 2016. A renewed wave of repression against civil society actors critical of elections is expected.
Dissenting opinions unwelcome
Azerbaijan ranks 162nd out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index, placing it between states such as Egypt and Libya. Freedom of the press is virtually non-existent in the country. Instead of free media, state television and the state press have a monopoly on reporting. This, too, costs the government a great deal. In July 2017, President Aliyev announced that he would provide free housing for more than 250 journalists. Unsurprisingly, almost all of the beneficiaries work for pro-government media. Independent media professionals, on the other hand, have again been subject to increased legal persecution, stigmatization and defamation via social media since 2014.
Legal protection more difficult
Given the massive legal persecution of media workers and other civil society actors in Azerbaijan, it is extremely worrying that in October 2017 the Azerbaijani parliament published a draft law under which only lawyers registered with the Bar Association will be allowed to appear in court. If the law enters into force in January 2018 as planned, this would have drastic consequences for the legal assistance of politically persecuted persons. After all, with 900 lawyers registered with the bar association, Azerbaijan is a country with extremely low lawyer density. There are only nine lawyers per 100,000 inhabitants. The average in Europe is 165.
Journalists also at risk in exile
Under these circumstances, many have no choice but to go into exile. They flee to neighboring Georgia, Ukraine, the Netherlands or Germany. Until now, Azerbaijan’s regime critics thought they were relatively safe abroad. In May 2017, however, investigative journalist Afgan Mukhtarli was kidnapped in Georgia, where he was living in exile, and taken to a prison in Baku. In October 2017, journalist Fikret Huseylni was hit at Kiev airport. The former reporter for the anti-government newspaper Azadliq, who now has Dutch citizenship, was arrested while boarding a plane to Düsseldorf. He faces extradition to Azerbaijan.
The detailed country report can be found in the Atlas of Civil Society, which we offer for download below.