Azerbaijan: Civil Society Crackdown Continues

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Less than a month before Azerbaijan will host the inaugural European Games, starting June 12, the country’s systematic repression of those expressing dissent or criticism of authorities shows no signs of stopping. At the same time, appeals from civil society organizations and prominent individuals to hold the government of Azerbaijan accountable are mounting.

A court in Azerbaijan on April 22, 2015, sentenced Intigam Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s leading human rights lawyer, to seven years and six months in prison on politically motivated charges of tax evasion, illegal business activities, embezzlement, and abuse of authority. Aliyev is a lawyer and chair of the Legal Education Society, which litigated human rights cases in domestic courts. He was one of the first Azerbaijani lawyers to bring cases to the European Court of Human Rights and has trained Azerbaijan’s new generation of human rights lawyers.

The prior week, on April 16, 2015, the same court sentenced fellow human rights defender Rasul Jafarov to six-and-a-half years on the same charges. Rasul’s arrest is widely believed to be in connection to his work on high profile human rights campaigns, including coordinating the inspiring “Sing for Democracy” campaign during the globally popular Eurovision Song Contest.

Several more of Azerbaijan’s strongest advocates for human rights – including Leyla  and Arif Yunus, and a leading investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova – are awaiting trials on various trumped-up charges.

In recent months Azerbaijani authorities have imposed a new series of extremely restrictive laws on nongovernmental organizations, requiring government licensing of foreign donor organizations and government approval of each grant awarded. Authorities have also frozen bank accounts of over 50 groups, and in some cases accounts of their staff members.

In his closing statement to the court, Aliyev said: “Arrests can take away our freedom, but not our desire for freedom. Our arrest continues our struggle for freedom.”

The World Movement for Democracy continues to demand that the Azerbaijani authorities immediately release all political dissidents and independent journalists and end its alarming campaign of harassment and oppression of civil society in the country.

*Photo Credit: Aziz Karimov, Freedom House, November 17, 2012, Baku, Azerbaijan