WASHINGTON DC. May 27, 2015: Several lawmakers caught up in an investigation of their participation in a lavish overseas trip introduced legislation that would benefit the alleged host of their spring 2013 junket – the state-owned Azerbaijani oil company. Additionally, these lawmakers — and others on the trip — have received tens of thousands of dollars in donations from a network of individuals with close ties to two nonprofit organizations to which the oil company allegedly funneled money to pay for the trip.
The official actions of the lawmakers to encourage energy development in the Caspian Sea and the clusters of contributions from people linked to the nonprofits that facilitated the trip have not been previously reported. The trip itself has been scrutinized by the Office of Congressional Ethics, which found that the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to the two nonprofits to pay for the 10 lawmakers to attend a conference in Baku, Azerbaijan, at which the development of natural gas pipelines through the Caucasus region and Turkey were discussed, according to the Washington Post. Earlier reports on the trip said it was paid for by two Texas nonprofits closely affiliated with followers of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians and the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan (AFAZ).
A representative of SOCAR confirmed to OpenSecrets Blog that his company provided the money to AFAZ. According to a Foreign Agents Registration Act filing from 2014, AFAZ was working on behalf of SOCAR. Travel disclosures by the lawmakers who went to Baku indicate the travel and other costs were paid by the Turquoise Council or one of several Turkic-American groups with close ties to the Council.
BAKU. May 25, 2015: A fire that killed 15 people and destroyed an apartment block in the Azerbaijani capital Baku has raised fears about building standards, as the city undergoes a makeover ahead of next month’s European Games.
Although the fire service was swiftly on the scene when the 16-storey block caught fire on May 19, officers could not check the flames as the plastic cladding on the building’s exterior burned uncontrollably over four hours. Four of the 16 residents who died were young children. Fifty others were injured, and most were later said to be in serious condition.
“When I came to in the evening, a doctor told me I had lost two children – three-year-old Farah and my unborn baby,” Gunay Maharramova told the Minval.az news service. “Then I stopped feeling the aching pain of the wounds I received in the fire, and a new fire started inside me that no one and nothing can ever put out.”
The government swiftly set up a commission to look into the tragedy, and President Ilham Aliev chaired its first meeting on May 20. Deputy Prime Minister Abid Sharifov, appointed to head the commission, said residents of the gutted apartment block in Baku’s Binagadi district would be given temporary accommodation and 20,000 manats (19,500 US dollars) per household in compensation, while families who lost members would get another 15,000 manats each.
Sharifov indicated that building and safety standards had not been observed, and Prosecutor General Zakir Qaralov pointed to the exterior plastic cladding, saying it had not been checked or certified.
WASHINGTON. May 21, 2015: Washington decided to hold off on carrying a bilateral dialogue over civil society and democracy with the Azerbaijani officials, TURAN’s U.S. correspondent Alakbar Raufoglu was informed by the diplomatic sources.
State Department official Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for human rights, was planning to visit Baku early last week to focus on current challenges between the two countries in a wave of an ongoing crackdown against civil society and western institutions in Azerbaijan.
The trip, however, got cancelled at the last moment, according to the diplomatic sources, leading to rumors that the Azerbaijani side prevented it. Baku previously snubbed another top U.S. government delegation’s trip prior to 2013 presidential election,which was supposed to be lead by then DAS Thomas Melia on democracy and human rights.
Speaking to TURAN’s Washington correspondent on Wednesday, May 20 a State Department Official ruled out the possibility ofAzeri cancellation of Malinowski trip.
“It’s not correct that the Azerbaijan government prevented a trip,” State Department Officials noted. “While the US and Azerbaijan agreed to hold such a dialogue during [Assistant Secretary] Toria Nuland’s February visit to Baku, we simply don’t believe that such a dialogue would be productive right now given the current climate. That’s our judgment, and our decision.”
Although the agreement on creation of a bilateral U.S.-Azerbaijani dialogue was announced in February, it yet remained unclear whether Azeris, or the U.S. side initiated the idea.
WASHINGTON. May 19, 2015: The government of Azerbaijan is pursuing two big, interrelated campaigns. One of them is a relentless domestic effort against any independent voices who criticize the regime. The other is an international campaign to convince audiences beyond the country’s borders that no real crackdown is taking place or, if it is, that it should not be taken all that seriously.
The domestic campaign has gathered steam in advance of the first ever European Games that will open in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, on June 12th. Civil society activists and news media have felt the brunt of the deepening repression. The international campaign takes the form of massive investments aimed at shaping elite opinion and decision making in key Western capitals, including Washington and Brussels.
A spotlight was shined on these issues at a recent discussion held in Washington titled “Azerbaijan: A Test Case for Democratic Solidarity.” Kennan Aliyev, director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL’s) Azerbaijani Service, observed that in an already repressive media environment the government in Baku is doing “everything it can” to disrupt independent media. He noted the use of raids and various forms of pressure against a growing number of individuals and organizations that support transparency, accountability, and democratic development in the country; the jailing of award-winning journalist Khadija Ismayilova in December 2014 drew particular international attention. She remains imprisoned, her pre-trial detention having been recently extended by another three months.
BAKU. May 19, 2015: A police officer and a fire fighter help child victim of an apartment building fire in Baku, Azerbaijan, Tuesday, May 19, 2015. Azerbaijani officials say 16 people have died and more than 50 have been injured in a fire at an apartment building in Baku, the capital. The massive fire quickly engulfed 16-story apartment building Tuesday and took hours to contain. Azerbaijan's chief prosecutor, Zakir Garalov, said the bad quality of plastic paneling covering the building contributed to the fire and a criminal probe has been launched to determine the culprits. (AP Photo/Orxan Azim)
WASHINGTON, May 14, 2015: According to the Washington Post, the Office of Congressional Ethics has discovered that a state-owned Azerbaijani energy company used nonprofit proxies to fund a trip by 10 members of the House of Representatives to a 2013 conference in Azerbaijan. Such foreign-funded travel would appear to violate the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act; per the Post, however, there is no evidence any of the legislators who took the trip knew that the two Houston-based nonprofits that funded it were actually fronts for Azerbaijani government interests.
The independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which was launched in 2008 to conduct investigations, has given its report on the matter to the House Committee on Ethics. The House Committee on Ethics can recommend sanctions against House members (which would then be voted on by the full House) and can also refer incidents of potential illegality to state and federal authorities.
The Azerbaijani energy company involved is known as SOCAR, and its presumed motive for wining and dining United States figures, per the Post, is to ensure that a gas pipeline on which both SOCAR and an Iranian company are working continues to win exemptions from American sanctions against Iran. Such exemptions allow companies involved with the pipeline to continue to do business in the United States and have been granted by Congress and signed into law by President Obama on multiple occasions. (Travel-funding shenanigans aside, the pipeline is considered beneficial to American interests “because it would bolster European security by offering an alternative to Russian gas,” the Post writes.)
In February Ismayilova was fined 2,500 manat (about $2,500 -ed.) for defamation of former opposition leader Elman Hasanov. The decision to postpone her appeal comes as she enters her six month in pretrial detention over a number of separate charges, dismissed as spurious and trumped up by international human rights organisations.
“The continued judicial harassment of Khadija Ismayilova by Azerbaijani authorities is cruel and unjust,” said Index CEO Jodie Ginsberg. “As Azerbaijan prepares to host this summer’s inaugural European Games, it is worth remembering that the treatment of Ismayilova flies in the face of the principles of press freedom and human dignity enshrined in the Olympic Charter.”
Ismayilova was arrested on December 5 on charges of inciting suicide and given two months in pretrial detention, which has since been extended twice, last in early March. The initial charge has in recent weeks been further discredited by the backtracking of the accuser, Tural Mustafayev.
In April Mustafayev said in a radio interview that he no longer stands by the letter he wrote in November 2014, accusing Ismayilova of inciting him to suicide, and that he had written to the head public prosecutor to retract his complaint. He says he had first tried in December to withdraw the complaint. Then in May, he accused the city prosecutor’s office in Baku of using his suicide attempt as an opportunity to target Ismayilova.
NEW YORK. May 9, 2015: Khadija Ismayilova, a jailed Azerbaijani investigative journalist the journalist of the local Azerbaijani office of the Radio Liberty, crowned her journalistic achievements on May 5 by winning a prestigious media freedom award from the PEN American Center. Chants of "Khadija, Khadija" erupted from the more than 800 guests gathered at a gala awards dinner in New York as top names in the journalism world moved to recognize Ismayilova's bravery and persistence in exposing corruption at the highest levels of power in Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijani government have subjected Khadija Ismayilova to detention, legal harassment and character assassination. In December, she was arrested on the contrived charge that she had incited a colleague to suicide and she remains in pre-trial detention.
Not coincidentally, Ismayilova’s imprisonment coincides with the European Games, an Olympic-organized event to be held in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, in June. PEN presented Ismayilova with its PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award (for a writer imprisoned or persecuted for his or her work), last night, and commissioned the following cartoons speaking to her situation.
Living outside Washington, D.C. along with his family, Yunus says, he often visits the neighboring city Baltimore which reminds him of Baku — the city where he grew up.
Yunus, a former chief of staff of the Azerbaijani government and Parliament, was forced out of his country in 2003 due to political shift that he was strongly opposing, and got an asylum in the U.S. years ago.
Most of his family members though were persecuted since then for political reasons; and the government is still punishing some. Most recently, his brother Arif Yunus and Arif’s wife Leila Yunus, both leading rights activists in the country, have also been arrested, facing charges of fraud and treason that supporters say are used as a punishment for their long years of activism and regional peace efforts.
BAKU. May 1, 2015 (Radio Azadliq): Requirements for Azerbaijani nationals, permanently living and working abroad to register at the local consulates and embassies now extends to temporary residence holders as well.
All Azerbaijani citizens must register at the local consulates within a month of their arrival to a foreign country.
Relevant information will be sent to the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection as well as the State Migration Service twice a year – in March and September. This new amendment was added to the laws on "Citizenship” and on "Leaving, Returning and Passport”.
“The downside of this requirement is that Azerbaijani government will keep taps on all its citizens living and working abroad. It is going to be easy to locate those critical of the government. This law is part of the government’s attempt to keep its nationals under control”, says Asima Nasirli, lawyer focused on migration issues.
WASHINGTON. April 30, 2015: As the U.S. legislators discuss the first submissions of evidence of human rights abuses relevant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability act, the authors of the bill urge “bad guys” all around the world, including Azerbaijan, to “be accountable and stop violating human rights.”
“Magnitsky act was never anti-Russia, it was anti-bad guys in Russia and makes sense globally,” says Congressman Jim McGovern, Co-sponsor of the bill.
Speaking to TURAN’s Washington, D.C. correspondent Alakbar Raufoglu on Wednesday, April 29, Congressman McGovern said, current debates over the Global Magnitsky bill are “an indication that the U.S. and hopefully other countries around the world are making human rights a more central part of their foreign policy.”
Human rights abusers all over the world“should be worried that people are demanding they’d be held into account,” he said.
Asked whether Azerbaijani officials will be directly targeted by the global act, he said, the billwould target corrupt officials and perpetrators of human rights abuses all around the world and begin to hold them to account.
“All too often, [the rights abusers] act with impunity.. We’re talking about how we stand up to human rights abusers and people who are guilty for corruption... Not just in Russia but all around the world,” he said.
BAKU. April 29, 2015 (Radio Azadliq): April 28, during the hearing against a decision of Binagadi Court to fine the journalist for libel investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova said her cell was searched following the last three letters she sent from jail. The head of the detention center Azer Seyidov summoned Ismayilova two days prior to the trial and accused the journalist of slander. Ismayilova said Seyidov told her that the only reason she is not placed in solitary confinement this time is because of the approaching European Games. She was warned however that the next time this happens; she won’t be allowed to speak with her family on the phone nor meet them.
Unlike the previous hearing, Ismayilova was placed into a cage rather than a tank. Despite lawyer’s protest to sit Ismayilova next to her lawyers she was kept inside the cage with heavy security guarding the cage.
The guards attempted at looking at the document Ismayilova’s lawyer Yalchin Imanov handed to her during the hearing. They also tried to intervene when Ismayilova wanted to speak with her lawyers during the break.
BAKU. April 29, 2015 (Radio Azadliq): Over the past years FIDH ( the International Federation for Human Rights - ed.) increased its work on the situation of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan. The focus intensified especially in the aftermath of crackdown of last summer. Azadliq Radiosu spoke to Hugo Gabbero on FIDH’s recent visit to Azerbaijan and the organization’s evaluation of the human rights defenders situation in the country.
Hugo Gabbero: What we witnessed since the wave of repression in the summer of 2014 is that authorities strive to suffocate the last space of freedom and are progressively transforming the country into a giant prison for human rights defenders. So it is in the light of this situation that we (FIDH) decided last January (2015) to travel to Baku (January 4-8), to try and visit the human rights defenders in prison and to establish a dialogue with the authorities of Azerbaijan.
WASHINGTON. April 29, 2015 (Radio Azadliq): Freedom House says restrictive new laws and violence against journalists resulted in a global decline of press freedom during 2014, bringing the world's press freedom to its lowest point in more than 10 years.
In a report released on April 29, the U.S.-based watchdog said press freedom declined significantly in 18 countries and territories during 2014 -- with some of the worst declines in Azerbaijan, Serbia, and Iraq.
Freedom House said Belarus, Russian-annexed Crimea, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were among the world's 10 worst-rated countries and territories for press freedom.
It said the worst in the Balkans was Macedonia, where press freedom has continued to decline during the past five years.
The report says Azerbaijan's government was one of the worst offenders for using detentions and closures of media offices under security or emergency laws, with nine journalists in prison by December 1.
BAKU. April 23, 2015: Jailed opposition activist Tofig Yagublu's daughter died yesterday. Nargiz Yagublu, also opposition activist, suffered from the Hepatitis C and died in the hospital in Tomsk, Russia while delivering her baby. Tofig Yagublu, deputy chairman of Musavat, serving a lengthy prison term for the riot instigation charges, will be allowed to visit the funeral of his daughter. Today, Tofig Yagublu's lawyers informed the local media that Yagublu will be released from jail for seven days starting from tomorrow.
WASHINGTON. April 23, 2015: The crackdown on human rights in Azerbaijan has intensified with a string of trials that have targeted prominent civil society activists and journalists.
The sentencing of the prominent human rights lawyer to a lengthy prison term on Wednesday was the latest action taken by the authorities in what is widely seen as a part of repressive policies designed to suppress independent voices in Azerbaijan, analysts say.
Intigam Aliyev, the leader of the Legal Education Society, was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison on charges of tax evasion, engagement in illegal business and abuse of authority. His sentencing comes less than a week after another prominent human rights activist was sentenced to six and a half years in jail.
At his sentencing, Aliyev called the criminal charges against him to be politically motivated.
“The arrests can deprive us of our freedom, but they cannot take away our will to freedom,” Aliyev said in an emotional speech.
BAKU. April 22, 2015 (Radio Azadliq): April 22, Grave Crimes Court in Baku sentenced prominent human rights defender Intigam Aliyev to seven and half years. He was found guilty of tax evasion, abuse of authority, illegal enterpreneurship, and appropriation.
In his final statement Aliyev said, "In this country it is a crime to have an alternative opinion, to talk about election fraud, and discuss issues of political prisoners on an international level. Yes, I confess that I was engaged in many of these criminal activities and as a result damaged the government's reputation heavily. In this case, the request to jail me for ten years doesn't sound like a heavy sentence."
Intigam Aliyev sent over 200 cases to the European Court of Human Rights, most if not all were cases of political rights violations.
BAKU. April 22, 2015 (Radio Azadliq): Azerbaijan’s incumbent President Aliyev’s new proposal to the National Parliament is stirring discontent. In his new proposal, President says citizens of Azerbaijan who have secretly taken a new citizenship and failed to inform Azerbaijan’s consular services will be penalised.
Fines ranging from 3thousand to 5thousand manats and public work between 360 to 480 hours will be used against the instigators.
However, some in Azerbaijan consider the proposal as lacking legal base. Muzaffer Bakhishov, lawyer, says the new proposal is meant to prevent those Azerbaijani nationals the government doesn’t like from returning to the country. “In case someone doesn’t provide information on his/her new citizenship, this person is going to be liable to criminal penalty. Upon this person’s return to Azerbaijan, he/she will be criminally liable.”
BAKU. April 22, 2015: Yesterday, the Appellate Court of Baku held a preliminary hearing in the case of the jailed Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova. The hearing was held not on the main charges against the imprisoned Azeri journalist, but on the civil claims of a person called Elman Turkoglu who claimed Khadija Ismayilova slandered him through a Facebook posting. The trial court had fined Khadija Ismayilova for an unusually high amount of 2500 manat (about $2500), Ismayilova appealed while in jail under other criminal charges brought by the Attorney General. Yesterday's hearing at the Appellate Court had a strange format. Khadija Ismayilova was placed in a soundproof glass cage to ensure that she would not be able to utter a word during the hearing.
The local media representatives referred to this glass cage as 'aquarium'. The "aquarium" was additionally reinforced by special guards who were present throughout the hearing. When Khadija Ismayilova's lawyers requested that the judge ordered to release her from that cage and allow her to sit together with her lawyers, the judge meekly suggested that they asked the permission of the guards of the glass cage. Ismayilova's lawyers pointed out that the "aquarium" was soundproof and that they could not communicate with gestures and that they should be able to confer with their client.
When the judge said Ismayilova's lawyers should ask for the permission of the guards who were guarding Ismayilova's isolation in the glass cage, Ismayilova's lawyers reminded the judge that the hearing should be presided by the judge and not the prison guards.
The judge then requested permission from the guards to allow Khadija Ismayilova to sit together with her lawyers and the guards refused to allow that.
KURDAMIR. April 20, 2015. "Avoiding Kurdakhani lands you in Kurdamir", says an ancient Azerbaijani proverb... Well, maybe not. But there surely could be such a proverb, given the recent sightseeing trips of the US Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Robert Cekuta.
A post on the US Embassy's Facebook profile from Feb 11 asked the Azerbaijani followers to vote on the site that the newly appointed Ambassador Cekuta should see first in Azerbaijan. As we previously reported, the great majority of respondents asked the US Ambassador to go to a place called "KURDAkhani". The Ambassador has not made to Kurdakhani yet, but he already visited a region called "KURDAmir".
The difference between the two places, in spite of the similarity of names, cannot be any bigger. One is an infamous jail, where many of Azerbaijan's hundred or so political prisoners are locked up. The other is an arid region where the showcase military air-base, a symbol of the regime's cooperation with the West, is located. But, most importantly, Kurdakhani is where the ordinary Azerbaijanis, representatives of the civil society asked the new US Ambassador to visit. Kurdamir air-base, on the other hand, is a type of place where the corrupt local dictator Ilham Aliyev would rather see Mr. Cekuta spend all his time in Azerbaijan. And it is Mr. Aliyev, not his people, who seems, so far, to have the friendly ears of the US Administration.
WASHINGTON. April 17, 2015: Yesterday, the US State Department issued yet another statement expressing concerns over the Azerbaijani government's ongoing crackdown on the civil society. This statement was issued in response to the sentencing of the Azerbaijani civil rights activist Rasul Jafarov to six and a half years in jail. Below is the full text of the statement:.
We are deeply troubled by the April 16 decision of an Azerbaijani court to sentence prominent human rights activist Rasul Jafarov to a six and a half - year prison term on charges widely considered to be politically motivated. A founder and chairman of the Human Rights Club, Jafarov was arrested last August as part of a broad crackdown on human rights activists. His conviction is a further setback to Azerbaijan’s democratic development. We urge the Government of Azerbaijan to abide by its international commitments and respect the rights of its citizens. As a first step, we urge the authorities to release Mr. Jafarov and others incarcerated in connection with exercising their fundamental freedoms. Doing so would strengthen the country’s long-term stability and our bilateral relationship.(Azeri Report)
BRUSSELS. April 17, 2015: The European Union issued a brief statement expressing concerns over the recent sentencing of the Azerbaijani civil rights activist Rasul Jafarov to six years and a half in jail. Below is the full text of the statement:
"The six and a half year custodial sentence imposed by an Azerbaijan court on Mr Rasul Jafarov, a well-known human rights defender and respected partner of international donors, appears harsh and disproportionate to the alleged offences on which it is based. Procedural shortcomings, witnessed by international monitors during the trial of Mr Jafarov, raise concerns about due legal processes.
The EU calls on Azerbaijan to abide by its international commitments and to establish greater trust in the independence and professionalism of its judicial system. We look to the authorities in Azerbaijan to ensure that Rasul Jafarov is given the opportunity to appeal this verdict in a fair and unbiased process."
OSLO. April 16, 2015 (Humanrightshouse.org): Rasul Jafarov is a lawyer and human rights activist. He founded the organisation Human Rights Club and has been internationally known through the “Sing for Democracy” campaign, launched to draw attention to the human rights situation in Azerbaijan when the country hosted the 2012 Eurovision contest.
On 2 August 2014, he was arrested and sentenced to three-months pre-trial detention. He was then accused of illegal entrepreneurship, evasion of payment of taxes, abuse of professional power, misappropriation of other’s property and fabrication of documents. Jafarov was arrested during an unprecedented crackdown on human rights in Azerbaijan and many other prominent human rights defenders were also arrested, including Intigam Aliyev, Leyla and Arif Yunus, Anar Mammadli and later the investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova.
“The authorities of Azerbaijan has now come to an absolute low point of the regressive trend we have seen over the past years. We expect governments, international organisations and corporate businesses that have relations with the Azerbaijani government to hold Azerbaijan accountable and react firmly. Profound actions and sanctions must be taken as a response to Azerbaijan’s severe crackdown on independent civil society and human rights defenders – and to Azerbaijan’s total disrespect of international agreements and responsibilities.”, urges Dahle.
VIENNA. April 16, 2015 (OSCE.org): OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović today condemned the sentencing of Rasul Jafarov, a free expression and free media advocate and human rights defender in Azerbaijan, to six and a half years in a penal colony.
“Jafarov’s sentencing is nothing short of an act of injustice and it adds to the growing number of journalists and free expression advocates serving time in Azerbaijani prisons for their work,” Mijatović said. “This systematic and wide-scale persecution of independent voices in Azerbaijan is a clear violation of the fundamental and basic human right of freedom of expression.”
On 16 April, the Baku Court on Grave Crimes found Jafarov guilty on charges of embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, abuse of power and forgery committed by a civil servant and sentenced him to six and a half years in a penal colony. Jafarov denies all the allegations.
Mijatović noted various reports indicating that both the investigation and the judicial process involving Jafarov were flawed because of serious violations. Reportedly, all prosecution witnesses during the court hearing testified in favour of Jafarov.
OSLO. April 15, 2015: The official website of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) reported that at yesterday’s meeting of the EITI Board Azerbaijan was downgraded to candidate’ country following a Validation report carried out earlier this year. Validation is the EITI’s independent evaluation mechanism and Azerbaijan is the first country to be validated against the 2013 EITI Standard. The EITI is a coalition of governments, companies, civil society groups, investors and international organizations. 48 countries are now implementing the EITI Standard, and recognized as either EITI compliant or EITI candidate.
WASHINGTON. April 14, 2015: A group of experts and former officials have addressed a joint letter to U.S Secretary of State John Kerry with regard to the deteriorating state of human rights in Azerbaijan. The signatories call for sanctions against Azerbaijan's top leadership in response to the severe crackdown on the civil society and the independent media in Azerbaijan. Below is the full text of the letter:
Human Rights in Azerbaijan: A Joint Letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry
Dear Secretary Kerry:
We are alarmed by the deteriorating human rights situation in Azerbaijan. Arrests and detentions of journalists, civil society and human rights activists, religious believers, and opposition figures have multiplied; Azerbaijan now has twice as many political prisoners as Russia and Belarus combined. The government has targeted domestic and foreign NGOs and raided the office of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Senior government officials have engaged in an ugly anti-Western campaign. All of this raises serious concerns about the future of U.S.-Azerbaijani relations and doubts about the government of Azerbaijan’s commitment to comply with its international obligations as signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Open Government Partnership as well as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and its membership in the OSCE and Council of Europe. Attached please find an Open Letter detailing our concerns and steps that should be taken to address the situation, signed by 45 activists, experts, organizations, and former officials on both sides of the Atlantic.
The formation of a new bilateral commission on civil society, we believe, does not justify further delay in responding to the Azerbaijani government’s abysmal treatment of its own people. Official expressions of concern about the human rights situation over the last many months have not yielded results, and there is no reason to think the commission will change that trajectory unless it is paired with penalties for ongoing human rights abuses. Thus, the U.S. should:
Impose a visa ban and asset freeze on senior Azerbaijani government officials responsible for and involved in gross human rights abuses.
Block trade promotion assistance—Export-Import Bank and OPIC support—to Azerbaijani state-owned entities.
WASHINGTON. April 14, 2015: Human Rights groups and former diplomats call for action on Azerbaijan due to the increasing crackdown on the civil society. In a recently launched campaign to draw attention to the human rights violations of the Aliyev regime, a group of experts and former officials have also addressed a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Click here to read the letter This appeal, joined by human rights groups and former diplomats detail the human rights violations in Azerbaijan and calls on the Western governments and parliaments to impose sanctions on the individual members of the Aliyev regime implicated in the human rights violations in Azerbaijan. Below is the full text of the appeal:
Open Letter Regarding the Human rigths Situation in Azerbaijan
We the undersigned are alarmed by the deteriorating human rights situation in Azerbaijan. Arrests and detentions of journalists, civil society and human rights activists, religious believers, and opposition figures have multiplied; Azerbaijan now has twice as many political prisoners as Russia and Belarus combined. The government has targeted domestic and foreign NGOs, freezing their bank accounts and effectively paralyzing them. Senior government officials have engaged in an ugly anti-Western campaign. Corruption is a huge problem and inhibits the country’s ability to flourish economically and politically. The December 26 raid on the office of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a publicly funded news organization that reaches countries in the former Soviet Union and beyond, represents a direct challenge to the principles of freedom of speech. Through these actions and statements, the government of Azerbaijan has openly rejected its international obligations as signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Open Government Partnership as well as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and as a member of the OSCE and the Council of Europe.
BAKU. April 13, 2015: Ramiz Mehdiyev, chief of the Presidential Administration of Azerbaijan, appeared in public for the first time in four months after his mysterious disappearance. It was rumored that Ramiz Mehdiyev was incapacitated by a serious illness. Ramiz Mehdiyev appeared in the Cabinet meeting of the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev on April 10. Ramiz Mehdiyev is known as the grey cardinal of the Azerbaijani government, the most influential political figure in the Azerbaijani government. 77-year-old Ramiz Mehdiyev served in the position of the chief of the Presidential Administration both under the president Heydar Aliyev and later his son Ilham Aliyev since 1995.
BAKU. April 9, 2015 (Azadliq.org): April 9, prosecutor Mubariz Mirili asked the judge for a prison sentence of nine years for rights activist Rasul Jafarov. The request followed the hearing at the Baku Grave Crimes Court.
During the hearing, the presiding judge denied the motion raised by Jafarov’s lawyer to invite the expert who gave his expert opinion on the case and the related documentation.
In his defense, Jafarov said the appropriation and other charges are baseless. “The Human Rights Club began its work in 2010. Back then, according to the existing legislation, even if the organization was not registered by the Ministry of Justice, its work was not described as illegal. In addition, we have applied three times to the Ministry of Justice for registration and each time our applications were unanswered. After our last application, we took the case to the court”, said Jafarov.
BAKU. April 8, 2015 (Azadliq.org): Ruslan Nesirli, Sadif Gurbanov and Turkel Alisoy, members of the Popular Front Party were arrested shortly after the National Council – the coalition of opposition parties – organized protest on April 5.
On April 6, the chair of the party’s Sabail district branch, Sadif Gurbanov was sentenced to 25 days by the court order. The same day, police arrested another member of the party, Turkel Alisoy. Alisoy was sentenced to 30 days. On April 7, the party’s youth branch member Ruslan Nesirli was also arrested and sentenced to 20 days.
Turkel Alisoy is accused of hooliganism while the other two, Nesirli and Gurbanov for resisting police.
Vice President of the Popular Front Party Gozel Bayramli believes these arrests are the result of their political activities.
BAKU. April 7, 2015: Splashing out cash on first-of-its-kind sporting event seen as a valuable PR exercise by Azerbaijan’s leaders.
Hosting the European Games is seen as a way of polishing Azerbaijan’s international reputation, which has been dented by criticism of human rights abuses. But as spending goes through the roof, there is increasing concern that money is being squandered at a time when the country can least afford it.
The European Games on June 12 to 28 will be the first ever, so hosting them is a particular honour for Azerbaijan. The Olympic committees of European states voted to support its application by 38 out of 48 votes. Then again, Azerbaijan was the only country bidding.
Sports minister Azad Rahimov is chief executive of BEGOC, the committee running the games in Baku. He says four billion US dollars has been spent on building a new sports “city” and refurbishing existing facilities.
BAKU. April 6, 2015: Yesterday, April 5, hundreds of opposition activists staged a protest rally in Baku. The rally was organized by the opposition National Council of the Democratic Forces. The Mayoral Administration of Baku did not prohibit the activity, but the organizers of the event were summoned to the Police Department of Baku one day before the event. The opposition rally was held under the slogan "End Robbery!" targeting the widespread corruption in the Azerbaijani government (Azeri Report).
PRAGUE. April 3, 2015 (Azadliq.org): On March 31, Senior Researcher for Human Rights Watch was barred from entering Azerbaijan. Giorgi Gogia came to Azerbaijan to attend the trial of two prominent rights defenders Intigam Aliyev and Rasul Jafarov. Azadliq Radiosu spoke to Giorgi Gogia about the 31 hours he spent at the Haydar Aliyev International Airport.
Azadliq Radiosu: How are you feeling?
Giorgi Gogia: Still trying to recover. It’s been an exhausting 30 something hours. But I am fine.
It was a frustrating experience. In the end it all ended fine although it is very sad that I could not be with Intigam and Rasul where I wanted to be. Clearly I could not do much but being there just of moral support to them.
BERLIN. April 1, 2015 (HRW.org): Azerbaijani authorities on March 30, 2015, refused to allow a Human Rights Watch researcher to enter the country. The senior South Caucasus researcher, Giorgi Gogia, was planning to attend the trials of two Azerbaijani human rights defenders who were arrested on bogus charges and have been behind bars awaiting trial.
When Gogia arrived at Heydar Aliyev International Airport, authorities refused to allow him into the country, but would not provide an explanation. Immigration officials took his passport, and required him to remain in the passport hall. Thirty-one hours later they handed his passport to the flight crew aboard the plane Gogia took back to Tbilisi. No explanation was provided.
“Barring Giorgi Gogia from attending the trial hearings shows just how far Azerbaijan’s authorities have taken their crackdown on human rights,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “They’ve ruthlessly silenced many critical voices inside the country, and now they don’t want to let anyone in to bear witness to what they are doing.”
BAKU. April 1, 2015: I just spent 31 hours in Heydar Aliyev International Airport in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan – but not by choice.
I travelled there to attend the trials of two close colleagues and friends, prominent Azerbaijani human rights defenders who have been behind bars since August 2014 on a slew of bogus charges. Instead of being present to give support to my friends, I was stripped of my passport and spent the best part of a day-and-a-half in a kind of limbo, questioned by officials, marched back and forth between the passport control area and the transit zone, and questioned again.
Unlike my friends, I got to leave at the end of it. But throughout, I was made to feel like a dangerous criminal. That’s what it’s come down to in Azerbaijan: in the eyes of the Azerbaijani government, if you work on human rights, you are a dangerous criminal.
One of the people on trial today is Intigam Aliyev. He has represented hundreds of victims of human rights abuses before the European Court of Human Rights. I couldn’t help but reflect on Aliyev’s words at the time of his arrest: “Those who defend human rights, and political prisoners and report on election fraud are considered criminals in this country. [So,] I am one of those criminals.”
The other person on trial is Rasul Jafarov, who had been involved in compiling a comprehensive list of victims of politically-motivated prosecutions in Azerbaijan, and pressing for their release. Clearly, a “dangerous” guy.
WASHINGTON. March 31, 2015: In recent years, Azerbaijan has sought recognition as a country that punches above its weight on the global scene. Its leaders, bristling at the suggestion that Azerbaijan is yet another corrupt petro-dictatorship, would like to project the image of a modern European state. Having already hosted the Eurovision song festival and other high-profile gatherings, Baku has announced plans for a series of international sports competitions, culminating, the country’s rulers hope, in the Olympics.
Unfortunately, Azerbaijan’s greatest claim to global leadership is its well-earned reputation for political repression. Even as it announces plans for Formula One events and international soccer tournaments, Azerbaijan regularly makes news by shuttering civil society groups, persecuting independent journalists, and adding to its roster of roughly 100 political prisoners.
One victim merits special attention. Khadija Ismayilova, an accomplished investigative journalist, is currently in jail awaiting trial on charges that have rapidly grown in number and severity. She was originally arrested in December 2014 on the bizarre charge of having “influenced” a fellow journalist’s suicide attempt. Since then, the state has added charges of tax evasion, embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, and abuse of power.
BAKU. March 27, 2015: Life is not easy for the people of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s prisons are full of political prisoners. Hundreds of thousands of people are practically expelled out of their country. The remaining people have removed themselves from the political life in the country fearing death, prison, or exile.
Another dimension of the problem is that there is an ongoing debate on how to treat the governments which are engaged in massive human rights violations. Some would consider a more cautious approach to avoid isolating such countries with sanctions, fearing that isolation would only harden those regimes and that the only available avenue to improve the situation is to somehow engage the predatory governments of these countries and hope that political reforms carried out by these governments would somehow ease the grips of their authoritarian rule.
The Azerbaijani government’s lobbyists actually use this line of reasoning in order to defend the Aliyev regime.
The passage above is a basic-plan propaganda argument of an average lobbyist for the Aliyev regime in the US or any Western European country. Another “argument” is added for the behind-the-closed-doors meetings with the western government officials. That the Azerbaijani government is not homogenous, that there is an ongoing struggle between the pro-Russian and pro-Western factions within the Azerbaijani government and that any human rights criticisms from the West undermines the positions of the so-called pro-Western faction of the Azerbaijani government and strengthens the dreaded “pro-Russian” faction.
BAKU. March 26, 2015: A daughter of jailed Azerbaijani dissidents, Dinara Yunus, is among the growing choir of Azerbaijan’s critics who are using the upcoming “European Olympics” to draw attention to reported repressions in the Caspian-Sea country.
“My parents dedicated 30 years of their lives to human rights. Now they are in different cells in different prisons because they dared to speak out,” Yunus says in a recent YouTube video. Released by the UK human rights group Amnesty International, the video mixes her monologue with footage of the large-scale preparations in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, for the European Games this June.
“Mr. President [Ilham Aliyev], can you tell me why my mother is in prison after she was critical of the upcoming European games?” Yunus asks in the tape.
Dinara’s mother, prominent human-rights activist Leyla Yunus, is controversially jailed on charges that include tax evasion and spying for the enemy state of Armenia. International democracy-watchdogs scoff at these charges, and those against her husband Arif Yunus and many other activists, as politically motivated.
WASHINGTON. March 24, 2015: Azerbaijan is making itself a welcome home among neighboring states — from Russia to Iran, to the wider Middle East — that deny basic rights to their citizenry and ignore ways democratic states treat their citizens.
Does Ilham Aliyev government care about its image in the West? Until recently it seemed like it did.
For years, the oil-reach Caspian country has been trying to spruce up its image by hosting international events such as Eurovision, Global Internet Forum, OSCE Parliament Assembly summit, as well as the first European Games, due this summer. Aliyev and his team have also been spending a sufficient amount of money for lobby efforts in the U.S. and European capitals.
However, recent moves by the government of Azerbaijan to crack down on western and local organizations as well as restrict the media have caused a very negative effect on the country’s international image and, according to some analysts, also on perceptions of the business climate in Azerbaijan.
WASHINGTON. March 22, 2015: In Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winning crime drama “The Departed”, the viewers are presented the prototype of Whitey Bulger, one of the powerful mob bosses in America who was an FBI informant at the same time. Based on a true story, the movie masterfully depicts how Bulger, instead of serving America’s premier law enforcement agency, uses the agency’s vast assets to gain power and wealth. As his recent conviction clearly demonstrates, Bulger never served anyone’s interests but his own, and in doing so, he succeeded in duping the very people who showered favors upon him in vain hopes for reciprocation that never materialized.
As Elin Suleymanov tirelessly works Washington in order to expand the interests of the criminal enterprise otherwise known as the Aliyev regime, one is reminded of Bulger’s path in life. While Mr. Suleymanov professes his love for the United States, and is taken at his word by his happy-go-lucky hosts in Washington, the American interests in the country he represents continue to suffer on an unprecedented scale. Since Mr. Suleymanov assumed his post as the Ambassador of Azerbaijan, nearly all US-based organizations have ceased to function in that country. These organizations include Radio Free Europe, NDI, IREX, Open Society Foundation, and even the Peace Corps.
WASHINGTON. March 18, 2015: Azerbaijan sentenced opposition activist Siraj Karimov to six years in prison Tuesday on drug-related charges.
Karimov and his brother, Faraj Karimov, an outspoken critic of President Ilham Aliyev, were arrested last July for allegedly selling drugs. Faraj Karimov is presently in pretrial detention.
Amnesty International has recognized Siraj and Faraj Kerimov, along with other jailed opponents of Azerbaijan's government, as "prisoners of conscience."
The London-based human rights group said in a report released this month that at least 20 government critics, political activists and journalists are in prison or in detention in oil-rich Azerbaijan, awaiting trial on charges ranging from fraud and embezzlement to abuse of drugs and treason.
They include the prominent human rights defender Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif Yunus.
Arif Yunus' brother, Ramis, told Voice of America that the real number of jailed government critics is much higher. “There are actually in jail more than 100 political prisoners. It is 'Absurdistan,' not Azerbaijan,” he said.
Ramis Yunus, a U.S. citizen, recently sent an open letter to President Barack Obama asking him to help gain the release of his relatives. Arif and Leyla, both in their 60s, “are on the edge of death,” Ramis wrote to Obama. “I hope that the U.S. will not sacrifice my family for the sake of its energy security.”
WASHINGTON. March 17, 2015: Globally-recognised human rights organisations and the international media collectively deemed 2014 a year of unprecedented civil society crackdown in Azerbaijan. Political leaders, youth activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and bloggers were jailed on trumped-up charges; media outlets were shut down; and international organisations and donors were forced out of the country. Moreover, stringent laws, criminal investigations, and frozen bank accounts made it impossible for local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to continue their activities.For now, the government enjoys a modest victory, albeit a pyrrhic one.
So far, the Azerbaijani government has managed to silence its Western critics by cooperating with the U.S. and Europe on energy and security issues. However, the government’s recent clampdown has made it difficult to turn a blind eye; and it seems Azerbaijan and the West have reached a critical juncture in their relations.
BAKU. March 15, 2015: Today, the opposition coalition, National Council of Democratic Forces of Azerbaijan, held a protest rally under the slogan "End Robbery". Hundreds of protesters participated in this rally. Speaking at the rally, Jamil Hasanli, the opposition candidate during the last presidential elections of 2013, Ali Karimli, the chairman of the opposition Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, sharply criticized the Azerbaijani government for widespread corruption and the sudden devaluation of the local currency, which caused an acute economic crisis in Azerbaijan. Below is the video coverage of the event:
BAKU. March 12, 2015: Imrpisoned Azerbaijani Journalist Khadija Ismayilova's new letter from Kurdakhani prison has been posted on her Facebook profile. In her letter from prison, Khadija Ismayilova, the journalist of the Azerbaijani office of the US funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), sharply criticized the "behinds the door diplomacy" of the Western governments, including the recent visit of the US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland to Azerbaijan. Khadija Ismayilova wrote that these diplomatic efforts help the Aliyev's dictatorial regime "to silence all critics and create a false show of human rights." Below is the full text of the letter:
"Democracy is America's most powerful weapon for world respect and emulation. How we deal with this crucial situation will determine our moral health as a nation and our prestige as a leader of the free world."
Martin Luther King was describing the urgency of democratization in America by its need to become a strong world power. Maybe it was naive to suggest that democracy would sound more convincing than weapons in this crazy world. Yet here we are in a situation where, after one authoritarian regime in Ukraine was toppled, America tries to overpower another dictatorship in the region--Russia--with the help of small satellite dictatorships like Azerbaijan.
The world is no longer naive enough to turn a blind eye to such playing with moral values. So it is time for arms to speak, and oil and gas to lubricate the machine.
VIENNA, 2 March 2015 (OSCE.org): On the 10th anniversary of the death of Azeri journalist Elmar Huseynov, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović, today called on OSCE participating States to ensure journalists’ safety and the right to freedom of expression.
“On the anniversary of the death of Elmar Huseynov, the issue of journalists’ safety must be raised,” Mijatović said. “Attacks and harassment of journalists in the OSCE region is growing while thorough investigations are scarce, which has a chilling effect on free media.”
Elmar Huseynov, the founder and editor of the independent weekly news magazine Monitor, was shot and killed outside his apartment on 2 March 2005. The magazine had been under constant pressure from authorities for the critical nature of some of the articles published. Huseynov’s killers remain at large.
WASHINGTON. February 28, 2015: As officials in Baku and Washington remain silent over bilateral agreement in their response to ongoing crackdown against civil society and western institution in Azerbaijan, analysts urge the Obama Administration to refrain from action under uncertainty.
The agreement on creation of a bilateral US-Azerbaijani dialogue on civil society and democracy was announced by Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland during her trip to Baku early last week.
“We agreed to continue consultations on this [human rights situation and problems of the media] and strengthen them through the US-Azerbaijani dialogue on civil society and democracy. It is about creating a bilateral structure, which will run in parallel with the structures of the Council of Europe," Nuland said following her meeting with President Ilham Aliyev.
It remained unclear though whether the establishment of a new commission was Baku’s initiative, or “State Department is pushing the idea in an ethical and public relations vacuum, unaware of the minefield that it is walking into,” a veteran Eurasia watcher in the US told TURAN’s correspondent speaking on condition of anonymity.
LONDON. February 26, 2015: The British Olympic Association has admitted that organisers of the first European Games in Baku, under attack from human rights groups following a crackdown on freedom of speech, had effectively paid for its team of athletes to compete.
The BOA will send 160 athletes to the inaugural European Games in Azerbaijan in June, three times as many as went to the Sochi Winter Olympics last year. The Team GB chef de mission, Mark England, who will perform the same function at the Olympics in Rio in 2016, said the cost of sending the team would be largely covered by the organisers. “There’s participation grants that we’ve received from the organising committee. The net cost we’re hoping will be neutral for Team GB,” he said.
Preparations for the games, which will feature more than 5,000 athletes in 20 Olympic and non-Olympic sports, have been overshadowed by criticism of Azerbaijan’s ongoing attempt to quell critical voices. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch renewed their criticism of President Ilham Aliyev’s regime in the past week.
BAKU. February 26, 2015: 87-year-old Edile Salimova said police forced her to testify against Gunel Hasanli, the daughter of the opposition candidate during the last presidential elections Jamil Hasanli. Edile Salimova talked to Meydan TV saying the police invited her to the police station and there she was told that if she did not press charges against Gunel Hasanli, "she will be held responsible." Jamil Hasanli has already issued a statement saying the Azerbaijani government used a minor traffic incident to build up a case against her daughter and put her in jail. On February 20, the court quickly passed the verdict convicting Gunel Hasanli to one and a half year of prison time in a correctional labor colony.
Edile Salimova, apparently distressed with the fact that she was used to imprison Gunel Hasanli, said she could not sleep for three days knowing that she was used to imprison an innocent person.
Describing the traffic incident which caused Hasanli's imprisonment, Salimova said on ghe day of the accident she was on her way to a mosque to meet someone who had promised to help her. She felt bad because of her high blood pressure, and she fell down on the road. Salimova said as she was trying to stand up Hasanli who was driving through that road slightly touched her. "When she (G. Hasanli) was driving by, she slightly touched me. She helped me and took me to an x-ray lab to check. It turned out that there were no fractures or injuries," said Salimova.
However, 12 days later, the police contacted Salimova, took her to a medical examination which "established that there was a hematoma on Salimova's left leg caused by a car accident. Gunel Hasanli was then quickly tried and convicted. Jamil Hasanli, famously spoke about the illegal businesses registered under the name of the daughters of the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev. Jamil Hasanli said her daugher was intentionally targeted because of his political acticivities, specifically for his anti-corruption statements during the past presidential elections (Azeri Report).
I am writing you to ask why under your watch America’s values and friends are being betrayed in Azerbaijan.
This process has been going on for a while. But it seems to have culminated last week, when Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland traveled to Baku and announced that the US and Azerbaijan plan to create a “joint structure for democracy and human rights”. This announcement might be seen by some as a symbolic final nail driven into the coffin of the US support for democracy in Azerbaijan.