Azerbaijan: Eurovision host country clamps down on peaceful protests and calls Facebook users 'mentally ill'

Amnesty International lambasted the Azerbaijani government for its appalling record on human rights in a new report released today. Amnesty has urged the international community to wake up to the violations unfolding in the country that this year won the Eurovision Song Contest – and will be hosting the competition in 2012.

The Spring that Never Blossomed – Freedoms Suppressed in Azerbaijan , officially launched in Baku at 10am GMT today, catalogues a clampdown on dissent since protests erupted in March.

While the country is courted by the west because of its huge oil deposits and apparent stability in a troubled region, the report calls on nations across the globe to stop turning a blind eye to the harassment and suppression of protesters and the media.

Hundreds of people gathered in the streets of the capital Baku in March and April this year demanding democratic reforms and greater respect for human rights. Inspired by mass protests in the Middle East and North Africa, opposition activists used social media to organise and disseminate information.

The Azerbaijani authorities responded by banning the protests and harassing and arresting bloggers and activists. Youth activists and opposition figures have been jailed on trumped up charges while journalists and human rights defenders have been threatened and harassed.

Amnesty International considers 17 people convicted around the time of the protests to be prisoners of conscience and is calling for their immediate release.

Natalia Nozadze, Amnesty International's Azerbaijan researcher, said:

“The clampdown has sent out a clear and calculated message – that public expression of dissent will not be tolerated, and nor will any attempt to galvanise public opinion against the current regime.

"The European Union and other international partners of Azerbaijan must take every opportunity to press for the release of the prisoners of conscience and to put an end to the suppression of peaceful protest, critical opinion and political opposition.”

Ganimat Zahid, the editor of pro-opposition newspaper Azadlig told Amnesty International:

“The government is tightening the noose on any form of communication by restricting access to information, printing paper and distribution outlets for independent media thus leaving the public in informational black-out. Increasingly, we rely on social media to fill the vacuum for informed debate.”

The government is also currently considering laws that could potentially restrict web users’ access to information and criminalising “misinformation”, further restricting online freedom of expression.

Natalia Nozadze added:

“The cumulative effect of these practices, together with the long-standing impunity of the authorities for such actions, has instilled a climate of fear and self-censorship in Azerbaijani society, which is stalling, indeed reversing, the country’s transition to a stable democracy.

“In oil-rich Azerbaijan, 20 years of independence, economic prosperity and relative stability have failed to translate into greater fundamental freedoms for its citizens while the consolidation of authoritarian rule over the last decade has been largely ignored by the outside world.

“The Azerbaijan authorities must reverse this trend and their international partners must make it clear that they will not do deals with those who carry out human rights violations.”

  • Download report:  The Spring that Never Blossomed – Freedoms Suppressed in Azerbaijan strong> (PDF)

Cases

Jabbar Savalan

In February 2011, history student and opposition activist Jabbar Savalan was arrested after re-posting articles critical of the government on Facebook and using social media to call for protests inspired by those in the Middle East and North Africa. He was beaten while in police custody to force him to sign a false confession and was sentenced to over two years in prison for the alleged possession of marijuana. Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience. Take action for Jabbar /p>

Bakhtiyar Hajiyev

Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, an opposition activist and co-founder of the Facebook group calling for the 11 March virtual protest against government corruption and oppression, was arrested three times starting in November 2010 for evading conscription and failing to register with the police. While in police custody he was punched, strangled and threatened with rape, allegations which have not been investigated. On 18 May 2011, Bakhtiyar was convicted of evading military service and convicted to three years in prison. Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience.

Adnan Hajizade

Adnan Hajizade, known as the “Donkey Blogger”, is available for interview on Skype from Baku. Hajizade was arrested on charges of “hooliganism” on 8 July, after reporting to police that they had been assaulted in a restaurant in Baku. His arrest came just over a week after he had posted a video critical of the Azerbaijani government on the video-sharing website YouTube. He was released on 18 November 2010 and remains critical of the government.

 

Following the protests 14 activists and members of opposition political parties were convicted of “organising and participating in public disorder” and sentenced to up to 3 years in prison. Amnesty International believes that there is no evidence that any of the imprisoned opposition supporters were engaged in anything more than the legitimate exercise of their right to freedom of expression and association in seeking to organise peaceful protests in central Baku. The crackdown intensified the already heavy-handed approach of the authorities.

Criminal and civil defamation charges continue to be used to silence critical media, while foreign media outlets were banned from national airwaves in 2009.

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