Azerbaijan: constitutional referendum on 26 September will surely pass but not the human rights muster

September 24, 2016

Michel Forst (right), the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, addressing reporters in Baku on September 22.
Michel Forst (right), the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders (right), addressing reporters in Baku on 22 September 2016.
Michel Forst, the UN’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said on 22 September 2016 that Azerbaijani authorities have applied crippling pressure to journalists and rights activists critical of the government, and made it virtually impossible for nongovernmental organizations to operate. “Civil society has been paralyzed as a result of such intense pressure,” Forst said as he wrapped up a nine-day visit to the South Caucasus nation to assess the situation. Observing that most of the recommendations by the international and regional human rights mechanisms have yet to be implemented by the Government of Azerbaijan, Mr Forst strongly called for establishing a mechanism that would result in a plan of action to implement those outstanding recommendations. He urged the Government to “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”. [for the full end of mission statement see: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=20544&LangID=E
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,” Forst added.
He was served immediately by Azerbaijani MP and editor-in-chief of the New Azerbaijan newspaper, Hikmat Babaoghlu, who told APA that “the Western imperialism has launched an attack on Azerbaijan with its entire network, which includes radical opposition groups, numerous local and international “civil society instructions” and “human rights defenders”. All these are taking place before the eyes of the Azerbaijani people, who are well aware of what is happening. Therefore, the destructive plan of imperialist centers will never succeed in Azerbaijan”  The main goal of the upcoming referendum is to better ensure the national security and the transition of development to a qualitatively new stage, he added. (Even more scathing is a piece written by Elmira Tariverdiyeva, the head of Trend Agency’s Russian news service – see link below.)
Forst’s report indeed comes just days ahead of a referendum (26 September) on changes to Azerbaijan’s constitution that critics say will tighten Aliyev’s grip on power, which he has held since 2003. The proposed amendments to the Constitution would further strengthen the already powerful president, including a longer presidential term, the authority to declare early presidential elections at will and dissolve parliament. The amendments will also lead to violations of the right to freedom of association. While in practice, public assemblies have already been prohibited in central Baku, the proposed amendments will grant the government even more power to interfere with the freedom of assembly in violation of international standards. The Council of Europe experts said on September 20 that the proposed changes would severely upset the balance of power and give “unprecedented” control to the president. (The head of the legal department in Aliyev’s administration called that assessment “hasty” and “politically driven.”)

Amnesty International said that assaults on freedom of expression mar the constitutional referendum “The referendum has been accompanied by arrests and intimidation from the beginning. Those who have attempted to criticise and campaign against these proposals have faced assaults and harassment by the authorities,” said Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International. Last month, police arrested three political activists from the opposition group, Republican Alternative (REAL) after they launched a petition against the referendum and the proposed changes to the Constitution. On 9 September the court revoked pre-trial detention and released one, however the criminal charges and case against him remain pending. Two other activists of REAL, Elshan Gasimov and Togrul Ismail, were detained on 15 August by plain-clothed police officers on their way to pick up campaigning materials. They were held incommunicado overnight and on 16 August the local court sentenced them to seven days of administrative detention on charges of resisting the police. They were released after the completion of their sentence. “Azerbaijani authorities continuously violate human rights ahead of elections. Every single electoral campaign turns out to be a campaign of intimidation of civil society,” said Denis Krivosheev.

We should also note that on 2 June 2016, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ordered Azerbaijan to pay compensation (15,000 euros) to human rights activists Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif Yunus, for “inadequate medical treatment” that led to “prolonged mental and physical suffering.” They were released on health grounds late last year and their prison sentences reduced to suspended sentences.

Sources:

Azerbaijan: Assaults on freedom of expression mar constitutional referendum | Amnesty International USA

http://www.rferl.org/a/azerbaijan-un-rights-expert-civil-society-worst-situation-25-years/28008014.html

http://en.apa.az/azerbaijan-politics/domestic-news/azerbaijani-mp-western-imperialism-launches-attack-azerbaijan-with-its-entire-network.html

http://azertag.az/en/xeber/Michel_Forsts_report_doesnt_reflect_Azerbaijani_realities_it_is_biased_ordered_says_Ali_Hasanov-994984

https://www.protecting-defenders.org/en/news/un-human-rights-expert-calls-azerbaijan-rethink-punitive-approach-civil-society

http://humanrightshouse.org/Articles/21894.html

http://en.trend.az/azerbaijan/politics/2663501.html

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This entry was posted on September 24, 2016 at 18:50 and is filed under AI, human rights, Human Rights Defenders, UN.

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