Azerbaijan Human Rights - History

Azerbaijan Human Rights - History

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While the law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and specifically prohibits press censorship, the government habitually violated these rights. The government limited freedom of expression and media independence. Journalists faced intimidation and at times were beaten and imprisoned. Human rights defenders considered at least 10 journalists and bloggers to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end. During the year authorities continued to pressure media, journalists in the country and in exile, and their relatives.

Freedom of Expression: The constitution provides for freedom of expression, but the government continued to repress persons it considered political opponents. The incarceration of such persons raised concerns about authorities’ abuse of the judicial system to punish dissent. In a September joint report, three NGOs stated, “Azerbaijan continues to use its legal and criminal justice system to keep tight control over public space and silent critical voices.” The constitution prohibits hate speech, defined as “propaganda provoking racial, national, religious, and social discord and animosity,” as well as “hostility and other criteria.”

In addition to the case of Mehman Huseynov (see section 1.c.), incarcerations included Afgan Mukhtarli, a freelance journalist and activist living in exile in Georgia, who was reportedly abducted from Georgia May 29, forcibly rendered to Azerbaijan (see section 5), and immediately arrested. Authorities charged Mukhtarli with illegally crossing the border, smuggling, and resistance to law enforcement activities (see the Country Reports on Human Rights for Georgia).

Immediately following Mukhtarli’s arrest in Azerbaijan, the heads of Georgia’s and Azerbaijan’s security services claimed Mukhtarli had voluntarily crossed the border into Azerbaijan. Mukhtarli, his wife, and other Azerbaijani activists and journalists disputed this claim. His lawyers stated he was physically abused while in detention (see section 1.c.).

A number of other incarcerations were widely viewed as related to freedom of expression. For example, on June 16, the court convicted Popular Front Party activist Fuad Ahmadli of allegedly illegally disclosing private client information of a mobile operator. On July 24, Faig Amirli, the financial director of opposition newspaper Azadliq, who was also the assistant to Popular Front Party chair Ali Kerimli, was sentenced to three years and three months and fined 39,000 manat ($22,800) for alleged tax evasion. While upholding Amirli’s conviction, the court ordered his conditional release from confinement at his September 15 appeal hearing. In 2016 Ahmadli and Amirli, despite their secular orientation, were arrested for alleged ties with Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey accused of organizing the failed coup attempt in that country.

In addition to imprisonment, the government attempted to impede criticism through other measures. For example, in early October authorities reportedly granted N!DA activist Ulvi Hasanli a medical exemption from mandatory military service until 2019, but later that month they removed the exemption and forcibly conscripted him. In an example of other methods of intimidation, following a public discussion on October 15, activists reported approximately 40 uniformed and plainclothes police prevented a press conference to discuss political prisoners in the country.

Press and Media Freedom: A number of opposition and independent print and online media outlets expressed a wide variety of views on government policies, but authorities penalized them in various ways for doing so.

Human rights defenders considered at least 10 journalists and bloggers and two writers or poets to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end. Authorities continued exerting pressure on leading media rights organizations.

Foreign media outlets, including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and the BBC, remained prohibited from broadcasting on FM radio frequencies, although the Russian service Sputnik was allowed to broadcast news on a local radio network.

Following the 2016 halt of the newspaper Azadliq’s print edition after the arrest of its financial director, no significant opposition publications remained in the country.

On May 12, in response to a suit brought by the Ministry of Transportation, Communication, and High Technologies, the Sabayil District Court blocked access to the Azerbaijani-language versions of RFE/RL and other independent media outlets, including the websites of Azadliq, Azerbaycan Saati, Meydan TV, and Turan.

During the year authorities continued pressure on independent media outlets outside the country and those individuals associated with them in the country. In high-profile examples, authorities continued the criminal case against Meydan TV initiated in 2015. Prosecutors combined the criminal cases against Afgan Mukhtarli and Meydan TV.

Violence and Harassment: Local observers reported journalists from independent media outlets were subject to physical and cyberattacks during the year. The attacks mainly targeted journalists from Radio Liberty, Azadliq and other newspapers, Meydan TV, and Obyektiv Television.

Activists said impunity for assaults against journalists remained a problem and that the majority of physical attacks on journalists were not effectively investigated and went unsolved. There were no indications authorities held police officers accountable for physical assaults on journalists in prior years.

Journalists and media rights leaders continued to call for full accountability for the 2015 beating and death of journalist and IRFS chairman Rasim Aliyev, who reported receiving threatening messages three weeks earlier; the 2011 killing of journalist Rafiq Tagi, against whom Iranian cleric Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani issued a fatwa; and the 2005 killing of independent editor and journalist Elmar Huseynov.

Lawsuits suspected of being politically motivated were used to intimidate journalists and media outlets. In one example, the Ministry of Taxation opened a criminal case against the Turan Information Agency in August. On August 24, authorities detained the director of the agency, Mehman Aliyev, conditionally releasing him on September 11. On November 2, the charges against Turan apparently were dropped.

The majority of independent and opposition media outlets remained in a precarious financial situation and experienced problems paying wages, taxes, and periodic court fines. Most relied on political parties, influential sponsors, or the State Media Fund for financing.

The government continued to prohibit some state libraries from subscribing to opposition and independent newspapers, prevented state businesses from buying advertising in opposition newspapers, and put pressure on private businesses not to advertise in them. As a result, paid advertising was largely absent in opposition and independent media. Political commentators noted these practices reduced the wages that opposition and independent outlets could pay to their journalists, which allowed progovernment outlets to hire away quality staff. In addition, international media-monitoring reports indicated that intimidation by Ministry of Taxation authorities further limited the independence of the media.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Most media practiced self-censorship and avoided topics considered politically sensitive due to fear of government retaliation. The National Radio and Television Council required that local, privately owned television and radio stations not rebroadcast complete news programs of foreign origin.

During the year authorities did not return work confiscated in June 2016 from the Ganun Publishing House in Baku. At the time, civil society activists reported authorities raided the publishing house after it printed posters advocating the release of imprisoned head of the REAL democratic movement, Ilgar Mammadov. The director of the publishing house, Shahbaz Khuduoghlu, reported police took some published materials and printing molds from the office.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses and cover written and verbal statements. The law provides for large fines and up to three years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of libel or slander. On May 31, the law was amended increasing the fine for libel from 100 to 1,000 manat ($58 to $580) to 1,000 to 1,500 manat ($580 to $875). The fine for slander was increased from 300 to 1,000 manat ($175 to $580) to 1,000 to 2,000 manat ($580 to $1,170). The law was also amended so that insulting the president could no longer be punished by fines, leaving only punishment of up to two years’ corrective labor or up to three years’ imprisonment.

Libel laws were employed against journalists. For example, on March 3, a Baku city court sentenced blogger Mehman Huseynov to two years’ imprisonment for libel after publicly stating he was tortured by police.


The websites of Voice of America, RFE/RL, and Germany-based media outlet Meydan TV were blocked at the beginning of the year, reportedly on the orders of government authorities. On May 12, at the request of the Ministry of Transportation, Communication, and High Technologies, the Sabayil District Court blocked access to the Azerbaijani-language version of RFE/RL and other independent media outlets, including the websites of Azadliq, Azerbaycan Saati, Meydan TV, and Turan.

On May 2, Aziz Orucov, director of the internet television station Kanal 13, was arrested and sentenced to administrative detention. The General Prosecutor’s Office subsequently opened a criminal case against Orucov for alleged tax evasion and abuse of office. On December 15, a court convicted Orucov of these charges and sentenced him to six years’ imprisonment

The government also required internet service providers to be licensed and to have formal agreements with the Ministry of Transportation, Communications, and High Technologies. The law imposes criminal penalties for conviction of libel and insult on the internet.

There were strong indications the government monitored the internet communications of democracy activists. For example, members of the Popular Front Party reported being harassed by police and forced to delete critical Facebook posts under threat of physical abuse. During the year youth activists were questioned, detained, and frequently sentenced to administrative detention for posting criticism of government corruption and commenting on human rights abuses online.

The Freedom House annual Freedom on the Net report, covering the period from June 2016 through May 2017, stated, “Internet freedom declined in Azerbaijan in the past year” and that “the space for free expression online continued to shrink.” The report also noted that, while in previous years the government refrained from extensive blocking, the past year saw more website restrictions.

According to International Telecommunication Union statistics, approximately 78 percent of the country’s population used the internet in 2016.


The government on occasion restricted academic freedom. Opposition party members reported difficulty finding teaching jobs at schools and universities.

History of Azerbaijan

The history of Azerbaijan encompasses the Azerbaijanis, and the regions historically, ethnically, and geographically associated with Azerbaijanis. During Median and Persian rule, many Caucasian Albanians adopted Zoroastrianism before converting to Christianity prior to the arrival of the Muslim Arabs (particularly the Muslim Turks). The Turkic tribes are believed to have arrived as small bands of ghazis, whose conquests led to Turkification of the population. Largely-native Caucasian and Iranian tribes adopted the language of the Oghuz Turks and converted to Islam over a period of several centuries. [1]

After the Russo-Persian wars of 1804–1813 and 1826–1828, the Qajar Empire was forced to cede its Caucasian territories to the Russian Empire the treaties of Gulistan in 1813 and Turkmenchay in 1828 defined the border between Czarist Russia and Qajar Iran. [2] [3] The region north of the Aras was Iranian until it was occupied by Russia during the 19th century. [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] According to the Treaty of Turkmenchay, Qajar Iran recognized Russian sovereignty over the Erivan, Nakhchivan and Lankaran Khanates (the last parts of Azerbaijan still in Iranian hands). [10]

After more than 80 years of being part of the Russian Empire in the Caucasus, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was established in 1918. The name "Azerbaijan", adopted by the ruling Musavat Party for political reasons, [11] [12] had been used to identify the adjacent region of northwestern Iran. [13] [14] [15] Azerbaijan was invaded by Soviet forces in 1920, and remained under Soviet rule until the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Azerbaijan appeals to international human rights organizations

Azerbaijan&rsquos Foreign Ministry called on international human rights organizations to support the fulfillment of the trilateral statement signed by the leaders of Azerbaijan, Russia and Armenia on November 10, 2020.

Speaking of Azerbaijan&rsquos cooperation with international human rights organizations on Friday, the ministry spokesperson, Leyla Abdullayeva, said the trilateral statement is aimed at restoring good-neighborly relations in the region, so, Baku also calls on international human rights organizations to abandon a selective approach to human rights and fundamental freedoms.

&ldquoConsidering that the first &ldquoState Program on Protection of Human Rights&rdquo was approved by the national leader Heydar Aliyev on June 18, 1998 in the Republic of Azerbaijan and the protection of human rights was identified as one of the main directions of the state policy, by the order of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Mr. Ilham Aliyev, dated June 18, 2007, June 18 is celebrated as Human Rights Day in the Republic of Azerbaijan every year,&rdquo the spokesperson said.

Abdullayeva stressed that Azerbaijan is committed to the principles of universality, interdependence and indivisibility of all human rights and fundamental freedoms. &ldquoThe Constitution adopted on November 12, 1995 defined the provision of human rights and fundamental freedoms in our country as the highest goal of the state. The chapter "Fundamental human and civil rights and freedoms" of the document contains 48 articles covering a wide range of human rights.&rdquo

&ldquoAs you know, our country is a party to major international legal instruments in the field of human rights. In addition to acceding to key international human rights instruments, Azerbaijan closely cooperates with international organizations to implement the provisions arising from them. Among these organizations, the UN contractual institutions operating in the field of the promotion and protection of human rights, the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the European Union hold an important place,&rdquo she added.

Abdullayeva emphasized that the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms is on the agenda of the Government of Azerbaijan.

&ldquoCurrently, as a result of the liberation of our lands from the occupation, which lasted for about 30 years, our country is faced with such challenges as ensuring the right of internally displaced persons to a safe and dignified return to their native lands, ensuring their social, economic, cultural rights, ensuring freedom of speech for media representatives working in the liberated territories and not having the opportunity to freely carry out their professional activities. In this regard, we again call on international human rights organizations to support the implementation of the trilateral statement signed by the leaders of Azerbaijan, Russia and Armenia on November 10, 2020, aimed at restoring good-neighborly relations in the region, and to refrain from demonstrating a selective attitude towards human rights and fundamental freedoms,&rdquo the spokesperson concluded.

Amnesty: don’t let Azerbaijan hide human rights abuses behind football

Amnesty International has increased the pressure on European football’s governing body, Uefa, by saying Azerbaijan must not be allowed to “sportswash its appalling human rights record” by staging high-profile football matches.

Baku’s Olympic Stadium is hosting the Europa League final between Arsenal and Chelsea next Wednesday and is also the venue for four games in next year’s European Championship.

But the decision to stage the Europa League showpiece in the former Soviet republic has been strongly criticised by fans and human rights groups and, on Tuesday, the Arsenal midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan said he would not travel to the game amid fears for his safety in a country that is locked in a simmering conflict with his native Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

“We must ensure that Azerbaijan isn’t allowed to sportswash its appalling human rights record as a result of the football fanfare,” Amnesty International’s UK director, Kate Allen, said. “Azerbaijan is in the grip of a sinister human rights crackdown, with journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders being ruthlessly targeted. Unfair trials and smear campaigns remain commonplace.

“LGBTI people have been arrested, and even people fleeing the country have been harassed and pressured to return. Fans, players and backroom staff can help prevent Azerbaijan’s likely attempt to sportswash its image by informing themselves about the human rights situation behind the glitzy facade of Wednesday’s match.

“All too often, governments are using high-profile sporting competitions to distract attention from repressive policies and human rights violations, to instead project an image of openness. This couldn’t be further from the truth with the current administration, and the Arsenal-Chelsea clash is just the latest reminder of this.”

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Photograph: Chesnot/Getty Images Europe

According to Azerbaijani human rights defenders, more than 150 people are in prison in the country on politically motivated charges, while mass arrests are used to silence the media and crack down on non-governmental organisations. The country, which has been run by the president, Ilham Aliyev, since 2003, is ranked 166th on the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, the lowest ranking in Europe.

So far, however, most of the criticism of Uefa’s choice of Baku for the final has focused on how difficult and expensive it is for Arsenal and Chelsea fans to get there, as well as the large proportion of tickets that have been allocated to local fans and sponsors.

Uefa has pointed out it has an obligation to grow the game throughout the continent and there was no way of knowing that two London-based sides would reach the final when the decision was made in 2017. It has also said the ticket allocation was based on how many travelling fans it believed Baku’s airport could handle. The Azerbaijan Football Association has said it regrets Mkhitaryan’s “unwarranted” decision to stay away.


Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, February 26, 1999.

Azerbaijan is a republic with a presidential form of government. Heydar Aliyev, who assumed presidential powers after the overthrow of his democratically elected predecessor in 1993, was reelected in October in a controversial election marred by numerous, serious irregularities, violations of the election law, and lack of transparency in the vote counting process at the district and national levels. President Aliyev and his supporters, many from his home region of Nakhchivan, continue to dominate the Government and the multiparty 125-member Parliament chosen in the flawed 1995 elections. The Constitution, adopted in a 1995 referendum, established a system of government based on a division of powers between a strong presidency, a legislature with the power to approve the budget and impeach the President, and a judiciary with limited independence. The judiciary does not function independently of the executive branch and is corrupt and inefficient.

After years of interethnic conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Armenian forces and forces of the self-styled "Republic of Nargono-Karabakh" (which is not recognized by any government) continue to occupy 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory. A cease-fire was concluded in 1994, and the peace process continues. Exchanges of fire occurred frequently along the Azerbaijan-Armenian border and along the line of contact with Nargono-Karabakh causing casualties, including some civilians. Military operations continued to affect the civilian population. There are 800,000 Azerbaijani refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP's) who cannot return to their homes. In the part of Azerbaijan that Armenians control, a heavily militarized ruling structure prevents ethnic Azerbaijanis from returning to their homes. In the part of Azerbaijan that the Government controls, government efforts to hinder the opposition continue to impede the transition to democracy.

Police, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Ministry of National Security are responsible for internal security. Members of the police committed numerous human rights abuses.

Azerbaijan continued economic reform in 1998 and the economy is in transition from central planning to a free market. Economic growth has been spurred by substantial foreign investment in the hydrocarbon sector, but it is offset by a highly organized system of corruption and patronage. The country has rich petroleum reserves and significant agricultural potential. Oil and oil products are the largest export, followed by cotton and tobacco. Other key industries are chemicals and oil field machinery. The Government signed 5 oil production sharing agreements with foreign oil companies in 1998, bringing the total to 14. Agriculture employs 33 percent of the labor force and contributes 20 percent to the gross domestic product (GDP). The leading crops are wheat, fruit and vegetables, cotton, tobacco, and grapes. Privatization of industry continues through auction sales of small- and medium-sized state-owned enterprises. Large enterprises remain almost exclusively under government control and operate at a fraction of their capacity. Accumulation of large wage arrears is common. Private retail enterprises, cotton gins, and grain mills are proliferating. About 90 percent of the nation's farmland is now in private hands, but new small farmers have poor access to credit and markets, and commercial agriculture remains weak. Per capita GDP is approximately $500 per year. Much of the labor force is employed by the state sector where wages are low. The overall economic situation of the average citizen remains tenuous, although in urban areas a growing moneyed class with trade and oil-related interests has emerged. According to the World Bank, 60 percent of the citizens live in poverty. Economic opportunity for the average citizen still depends largely on connections to the Government. Severe disparities of income have emerged that are partly attributed to patronage and corruption.

The Government's poor human rights record improved in a few areas, but government actions toward the end of the year negated some of the positive developments, and serious problems remain. Police beat persons in custody, arbitrarily arrested and detained persons, and conducted searches and seizures without warrants. In most instances, the Government took no action to punish abusers, although perpetrators were prosecuted in a few cases. In a variety of separate incidents, the Government arrested and opened criminal proceedings against approximately 40 members of opposition parties. Prison conditions remained harsh. The judiciary is corrupt, inefficient, and subject to executive influence. Corruption continued to pervade most government organs, and it is widely believed that most persons in appointed government positions and in state employment generally purchase their positions. The Government holds an estimated 75 political prisoners. The Government infringed on citizens' privacy rights. The Government eased restrictions on freedom of speech and the press. After open discussion in the press, the Government abolished censorship in August. Scores of opposition and independent newspapers continued to publish and discuss a wide range of sensitive domestic and foreign policy issues. However, the Government cracked down on the media later in the year in the postelection period. The Government continued to deny broadcast licenses to several organizations applying to open independent television and radio stations. The Government restricted freedom of assembly, association, religion, and movement when it deemed it in its interest to do so. Police suppressed or refused to allow many peaceful public demonstrations, while allowing others to occur. Opposition political parties carried on open and vigorous public activities in the months leading up to the election. In August-September, the Government allowed a number of public demonstrations, and closed its criminal investigation of eight prominent figures from opposition parties. After these positive steps, the Government clamped down on freedom of assembly after the election. The Government tolerated the existence of many opposition political parties, although it continued to refuse to register some of them. The Government continues to restrict citizens' ability to change their government peacefully. Although the Government passed an improved election law, the presidential election was marred by many irregularities, and a number of international and independent organizations concluded that it did not meet international standards. The Government was critical of certain domestic human rights activists, although it was open to limited dialog with domestic and international human rights organizations. Societal discrimination and violence against women and discrimination against certain ethnic minorities are problems.

Cease-fire violations by both sides in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict continued. They resulted in injuries and deaths among combatants and civilians, and the taking of prisoners, including civilians. Insurgent Armenian forces in Nargono-Karabakh and the occupied territories continued to prevent the return of IDP's to their homes. This restriction resulted in significant human suffering for hundreds of thousands of persons.

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings.

There has been no action by the Government in the killing of opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Member of Parliament Shakhmerdan Jafarov in July 1995.

Three police officers were convicted and given prison sentences ranging from 6 to 7 years for fatally assaulting detainee Jamal Aliyev in 1994 in order to force a confession.

There have been no further confirmed developments in the cases of the death of Firuz Gurbanov in August 1997, after which a police official was arrested, or in the death of Samir Zulfugarov in Baku in August 1997 where a police official reportedly was under investigation in connection with the death.

Cease-fire violations by both sides in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resulted in the death and injury of civilians.

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

All sides to the Nargono-Karabakh conflict still detain prisoners. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited 11 persons held in relation to this conflict, 6 held by Azerbaijan, and 5 held by Nagorno-Karabakh authorities. Azerbaijan holds both soldiers and civilians. The ICRC repeatedly asked the concerned parties for notification of any person captured in relation to the conflict, access to all places of detention connected with the conflict, and release of all such persons. The ICRC also urged the parties to provide information on the fate of persons reported as missing in action. The Government has presented to the ICRC a list of 856 persons allegedly held by the Armenians, but there was no information on further revision of the list during the year.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Torture is illegal however, there are credible reports that the police practice of beating prisoners during arrest, interrogation, and pretrial detention was widespread.

On at least three occasions, police or other government officials beat journalists (see Section 2.a.).

Prison conditions are harsh. The quality of food, housing, and medical care is poor. Prisoners must rely on their families to procure food and medicine. There are widespread and credible reports that authorities deny or give inadequate medical treatment to prisoners with serious medical conditions. Authorities severely limit opportunities for exercise and visits by family members of prisoners in security prisons.

The family of Kenan Gurel convicted of participating in a coup attempt continues to report that he was receiving inadequate medical treatment.

Human rights organizations were able to visit prisons on several occasions. However, the Government continued to deny the ICRC access to prisons except those where persons held in relation to the Nargono-Karabakh conflict were detained. Various embassies have petitioned the Government for permission to visit all prisons. In general the Government denies access to detainees held in security prisons that hold both high risk common criminals and high risk persons sentenced for crimes with a political connection, for example, persons sentenced in connection with coup attempts and military mutinies.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

Authorities arbitrarily arrest and detain persons without legal warrants. Often authorities do not notify family members after arrests. Frequently, it is days before family members are able to obtain information as to whether authorities have arrested someone and where authorities are holding the detainee. Family members do not enjoy the right of visitation. Authorities generally deny bail to detained individuals and often do not inform detainees of the charges against them. There is no legal protection concerning the right of detainees to be charged or released within a certain period of time, or for accused persons to receive an expeditious trial. Access to lawyers is often poor. In the past, police sometimes detained relatives of suspects being sought in an attempt to force the family to reveal a suspect's whereabouts (see Section 1.f.).

During the year, police arrested at least 40 members or supporters of opposition parties who were participating in peaceful demonstrations. All were released, but 21 had criminal charges lodged against them that were still pending at year's end. Police also briefly detained journalists (see Section 2.a.).

The Government continued to harass parties critical of the Government by arbitrarily arresting party members, including close associates of opposition party leaders. The Government arrested an aide to the chairman of the Popular Front Party, accusing him of illegal possession of a pistol and hand grenade that independent observers believe were planted. It arrested two other associates of the Popular Front Party chairman at a demonstration in November. The Government continues to detain without charge a deputy director of a state oil refinery previously run by Rasul Guliyev, a former chairman of the Parliament now living abroad whom the Government accuses of large-scale embezzlement. The detainee's family claims that he has a heart condition and was being denied adequate treatment. The actions taken against some of Guliyev's relatives were politically motivated. At year's end, the political detainees also included the nephew of Rasul Guliyev.

At year's end, an aide to opposition leader Isa Gambar was still detained for political reasons and had not been brought to trial. A relative of Gambar, previously detained for political reasons and charged with failure to notify the Government of a crime was convicted and sentenced to 3 years in prison (see Section 1.e.).

The Government does not practice forced exile.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for a judiciary with limited independence however, notwithstanding constitutional provisions for judicial independence, judges do not function independently of the executive branch. The judicial system is subject to the influence of executive authorities and has been widely seen as corrupt and inefficient. The President appoints Supreme and Constitutional Court judges, subject to confirmation by Parliament. The Government established the Constitutional Court and appointed judges to it. The President directly appoints lower level judges with no requirement for confirmation.

Courts of general jurisdiction may hear criminal, civil, and juvenile cases. District and municipal courts try the overwhelming majority of cases. The Supreme Court also may act as the court of first instance, depending on the nature and seriousness of the crime.

The Government organizes prosecutors into offices at the district, municipal, and republic level. They are ultimately responsible to the Minister of Justice, are appointed by the President, and confirmed by Parliament. The Constitution prescribes equal status for prosecutors and defense attorneys before the courts. In practice, however, prosecutors' prerogatives still outweigh those of defense attorneys. Investigations often rely on obtaining confessions rather than obtaining evidence against suspects. No judge has dismissed a case based on a prisoner's claim of having been beaten.

Cases at the district court level are tried before a panel consisting of one judge and two lay assessors. The judge presides over and directs trials. Judges frequently send cases unlikely to end in convictions back to the prosecutor for "additional investigation." Such cases may be either dropped or closed, occasionally without informing either the court or the defendant.

The Constitution provides for public trials except in cases involving state, commercial, or professional secrets, or matters involving confidentiality of personal or family matters. The Constitution provides for the presumption of innocence in criminal cases and for numerous other rights, including an exclusionary rule barring the use of illegally obtained evidence and for a suspect's right to legal counsel, to be informed immediately of his legal rights, and of the charges against him. However, the Government has not made significant efforts to enforce these rights throughout the criminal justice system. Defendants may confront witnesses and present evidence. The court appoints an attorney for indigent defendants. Defendants and prosecutors have the right of appeal. The Government has generally observed the constitutional provision for public trial. Foreign and domestic observers generally were able to attend trials.

Opposition political parties and NGO's credibly estimate that the Government held about 75 political prisoners at year's end, a reduction apparently reflecting a combination of releases of some prisoners in a general amnesty and completion of jail sentences for others. The Government continues to assert that it holds no political prisoners.

Nonetheless, the Government continued to convict and imprison persons for political reasons. For example, the Government sentenced a student member of the Popular Front Party to 18 months in prison. The student authored a document outlining a strategy of popular resistance to the Government that police retrieved from a computer hard drive, but the document was never published and the party disavowed it. The Government used the document to launch a 3-week media campaign against opposition parties in May and June. On June 2, a military court sentenced three persons, two of them members of a political party affiliated with former parliamentary speaker Rasul Guliyev (see Section 1.d.) that the Government has refused to register, to terms of 9, 5, and 2 years' imprisonment for falsely accusing the Minister of the Interior of trying to entrap them in a plot against the President. A court sentenced a relative of Musavat party chairman Isa Gambar to 3 years in prison for allegedly failing to inform authorities of a crime.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The Government infringed on these rights. The Constitution provides for secrecy of correspondence and telephone conversations, subject to limits provided by law in criminal investigations or in prevention of a crime. The Constitution allows searches of residences only with a court order or in cases provided by law. However, citizens widely believe that the Ministry of National Security monitors telephones, especially those of foreigners and prominent political and business figures. Police often conducted searches without a warrant, and investigations sometimes resulted in confining the individuals to their city of residence or a brief jail sentence for questioning. There were credible allegations that police continued to intimidate and harass family members of suspects.

There were credible reports that individuals linked to opposition parties were fired from their jobs (see Section 2.b.).

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press and specifically outlaws press censorship however, the Government in some cases did not respect these rights in practice. The Government gradually eased press censorship and then abolished censorship in August. Nonetheless, government actions created an atmosphere in which journalists exercised self-censorship. Prominent politicians criticized the Government without reprisal however, in one case, former president Elchibey was charged with slander after he accused the President of having helped organize a terrorist organization during the Soviet era. The charges were dropped in early 1999.

While the press debated a wide variety of sensitive topics for part of the year, a limited form of censorship somewhat restricted the public's ability to be informed about and discuss political issues. Most newspapers are printed in the Government's publishing house. Until August they had to submit their copy to government censors. However, the censors tended to be inconsistent in exercising their power to prevent publication. The Government's near monopoly of publishing facilities and its control over the price of newsprint gave it leverage over the press, a critical matter given the precarious finances of most opposition newspapers. In April the Cabinet issued new licensing requirements for all print and broadcast media, but the enforcement and effect of this measure was not clear at year's end.

In February police, citing no legal authority, seized all remaining issues of the monthly magazine Monitor from newsstands, claiming, along with other government officials, that an article in that issue contained material insulting to the Azerbaijani nation. Three individuals then sued the magazine for defaming the Azerbaijani nation. The court awarded a punitive fine on the magazine exceeding that demanded by the prosecution, which has since prevented the magazine from publishing. In addition, according to the Human Rights Watch annual report, in April the Minister of Internal Affairs sent journalists from the Monitor a letter demanding that they retract an article on torture published in the February issue that police had seized. In November senior government officials brought libel suits and demanded large punitive damages against the two largest opposition newspapers for articles they claimed were defamatory. The court decided against the newspapers, but as of year's end, the newspapers were appealing their cases no fines had been paid and no newspapers were closed.

Police or other government officials beat a journalist in February. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, police attacked 34 journalists as they were reporting on an opposition rally in Baku on September 12 and also attacked 4 journalists as they were protesting peacefully the defamation trial against Yeni Musavat on November 13.

There were no further developments in the beating of a journalist in 1996. In 1997 the investigation was reported as continuing, but no charges had been brought.

The independent and opposition press played an active, influential role in politics. Articles critical of government policy and high government figures, including the President, and discussing sensitive areas of domestic and foreign policy, appeared routinely in the opposition and independent print media. Newspapers and broadcast media openly discussed censorship itself prior to its abolition.

A large number of newspapers continued to publish. One reliable source put the number of registered newspapers at 375, and the number actually publishing at nearly 100. These included independent newspapers and newspapers with links to major and minor opposition parties. Government-run kiosks and independent news distributors distributed opposition and independent newspapers.

However, the Government tightly controlled official radio and television, the source of information for much of the population. Opposition parties had virtually no access to the official electronic media, except for television spots for registered presidential candidates during the election campaign. The Government periodically used state television to conduct campaigns of denunciation and harassment against political parties and leaders critical of the Government. There are a limited number of private television stations, whose broadcasts can be received only in Baku or in local areas outside the capital. Independent radio, preferred by the overwhelming majority of listeners, is largely entertainment oriented, but one independent station airs political topics, although news is only a small portion of its program.

Government newspapers made a number of references to the ethnic affiliation (Jewish) of the director of the Azerbaijani service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in the context of criticizing RFL/RL for unbalanced coverage of events in the country (see Section 5).

The Ministry of Justice continued to deny registration to 15 independent television stations, 13 of which did not broadcast. Six independent television stations operate in Baku and other regions. Four of six independent television stations operating outside of Baku were ordered to close they are now rebroadcasting but without frequency licenses. Several foreign television stations and radio programs are rebroadcast locally through Azerbaijani facilities and are seen and heard in most parts of the country. The Government shut down for 2 weeks the local retransmission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in April however, broadcasts were also available on short-wave bands during the shutdown. There are no restrictions on reception of foreign stations via satellite. The Government granted no new broadcast licenses this year, despite several applications that remained pending. Of the three stations licensed since 1993, one television station is aligned with the Government, and one television and one radio station are entertainment oriented.

The Government has limited Internet access by licensing only two Internet providers and denying transmission licenses to several others.

Appointments to government-controlled academic positions are heavily dependent on political connections. Nevertheless, several professors with tenure are active in opposition parties. There were no complaints of violation of academic freedom or of censorship of books or academic journals.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly however, the Government restricts this right when it decides that it is in its interest to do so. Authorities frequently prevented political parties critical of the Government from conducting indoor congresses and meetings as well as outdoor gatherings. However, the Government eased these restrictions beginning in May as preparations began for the October presidential elections and allowed limited freedom of assembly. The Government permitted opposition parties and presidential candidates to organize some rallies but cited questionable security considerations to divert the rallies from the sites of their choice. It refused to allow other demonstrations. In August, for example, the Government allowed the opposition to hold a rally but insisted that it take place on the outskirts of Baku rather than in the downtown area as rally organizers had requested. Police briefly detained over 300 persons proceeding to the rally or who engaged in unsanctioned pickets of government buildings associated with the rally.

In November the Government reapplied serious restrictions on freedom of assembly in the context of opposition parties' contesting the results of the flawed presidential elections. The crackdown began following a November 6 speech by President Aliyev in which he warned the opposition to act within constitutional limits (see Section 3). Police used force to disperse a peaceful, opposition demonstration on November 7, after denying the participants permission to hold the demonstration. Seven participants in that rally were tried on criminal charges and given suspended sentences. The Government gave a permit for another opposition rally on November 8 that proceeded peacefully until unknown persons attacked rally leaders. Four participants in that rally were arrested and sentenced to jail terms of up to 3 years 10 others were convicted and received suspended sentences. None of the attackers has been arrested, despite the fact that the faces of the attackers apparently were recorded on film. The Government permitted no more public demonstrations during the remainder of the year. On November 13, the Parliament passed a law on public assembly giving authorities wide latitude to regulate and ban demonstrations. Authorities used the law to deny permits for several demonstrations by parties critical of the Government on the grounds that they would "disrupt stability" or threaten public order. Police dispersed demonstrations on at least 2 occasions in September and November by force and briefly detained over 100 persons participating in those demonstrations.

The Government provides for freedom of association however, it restricted this right when it decided that it was in its interest to do so. The Government requires political parties to register. There are over 30 registered political parties. Some of these are affiliated with or support the President's party. At least 10 registered parties are considered opposition parties. There are at least three opposition parties that the Government continued to refuse to register. The Supreme Court, without explanation, reversed its 1997 ruling that the Azerbaijan Democratic Party should be registered. Nevertheless, unregistered political parties continued to function openly, and members of unregistered political parties can run for president but must be sponsored by a registered party or an independent "voters initiative group." Members of unregistered parties may run for Parliament, but only as independents in a direct constituency, not on a party list. A party must be registered to run a list of candidates.

Reports of harassment, including beatings, of political figures continued. There were credible reports that individuals linked to opposition parties were fired from their jobs. The Government did not return the Popular Front's headquarters nor many of its regional offices, which were seized in 1993.

Explicitly ethnically or religiously based parties were prohibited from participating in past elections.

The Government generally allowed private associations to function freely. The Ministry of Justice requires private organizations to register but did not grant this registration freely and expeditiously. It denied or unduly delayed registration for numerous private voluntary organizations, including three private human rights organizations. Nevertheless, unregistered associations functioned openly.

The Constitution allows persons of all faiths to practice their religion without restrictions, and the Government respects this provision in practice for Shi'a and Sunni Muslims, Russian Orthodox Christians, and Jews however, a law on foreigners and stateless persons contains language that prohibits religious "propaganda" by foreigners. This provision was reinforced by a presidential decree in 1997. There is no state religion. The law on religion subordinates all Islamic religious organizations to the Azerbaijan-based Spiritual Directorate of Caucasus Muslims. This law also permits the production, importation, and dissemination of religious literature only with the agreement of local government authorities. In one case, officials stopped the importation of a shipment of religious literature by a private individual not associated with a local congregation. The Ministry of Justice requires that religious congregations be registered. It continued to deny registration to a foreign Christian group but allowed it to continue to function during the year. Registration enables a religious organization to maintain a bank account legally, rent property, and generally to act as a legal entity. Lack of registration makes it harder, but not impossible, for a religious group to function.

Non-Orthodox Christian groups complained credibly of official harassment. Police in July detained approximately 40 persons belonging to the Word of Life religious group after they held a religious meeting in a private apartment. Nine Azerbaijanis and three foreign nationals were found guilty of holding an "illegal religious gathering" and were fined. One of the foreigners was expelled from the country. During 1996 and 1997, articles appeared in progovernment and independent newspapers crudely depicting non-Orthodox Christian missionary groups as a threat to the nation however, in 1998 the number of such articles declined to near zero. Because of anti-Armenian sentiment and the forced departure of most of the Armenian population, Armenian churches remained closed. The Jewish community has freedom to worship and conduct educational activities and, during the year, enjoyed the public support of the Government.

There was no further action in the 1997 case where an official in the Baku city prosecutor's office struck two Jehovah's Witnesses during questioning. Although the official was dismissed from the case, no action was taken against him.

There is some evidence of strong prejudice against ethnic Azerbaijanis who have converted to Christianity. Some government bias against foreign missionary groups persists. Nevertheless, a number of these groups continue to function.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Constitution provides for the right of citizens to choose freely their place of domicile and to travel abroad and return, and the Government generally respects these provisions, although at times it limited the movement of members of opposition parties. Residents of border areas in both Azerbaijan and Iran travel across the border in this restricted zone without visas. Foreigners and citizens require a visa to travel to the Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan. In the past, there were reports that local officials denied passports to members of the Armenian minority (see Section 5).

In August the Government ended a criminal investigation and lifted an associated travel ban, which had been in effect for several years, against eight members of opposition parties, including Musavat party chairman Isa Gambar and Musavat party deputy chairman Sulheddin Akper. Until August these persons were prohibited from traveling outside the capital. Former president Elchibey was prevented from traveling outside Baku for approximately 2 months while under investigation and on trial for insulting the President the charges were dropped in early 1999.

The Government officially recognizes freedom of emigration. Jewish emigration to Israel is unrestricted. However, with the majority of those who wish to emigrate already having left, the number of Jewish emigrants is now small. The remaining Armenian population in Azerbaijan (other than Armenians residing in the Nargono-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan) is approximately 10,000 to 20,000, mostly persons of mixed descent or in mixed marriages. While official government policy is that ethnic Armenians are free to travel, low-level officials seeking bribes have harassed Azerbaijani citizens of Armenian origin wishing to emigrate or obtain passports.

There were no draft notifications that restricted movement during the year. Draft-age men must obtain documents from military officials before they can leave for international travel.

The number of refugees and internally displaced persons from the Nargono-Karabakh conflict is approximately 800,000. Armenians have settled in parts of the occupied territories. However, Armenians have not allowed the hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis who were forced out of the now-occupied territories to return to their homes. The Government provides almost no assistance to these persons, who rely on donations from foreign countries. Most of these internally displaced persons continue to live in camps and other temporary shelters, often at below-subsistence levels, without adequate food, housing, education, sanitation, or medical care. The parties to the conflict have cut normal trade and transportation links to the other side, causing severe hardship to civilians in Nargono-Karabakh, Armenia, and the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan.

The Constitution provides for political asylum consistent with international norms. The Government is receptive to international assistance for refugees and internally displaced persons. It cooperates with international organizations to provide aid for them. The Government cooperates with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. The issue of the provision of first asylum did not arise. There were no reports of the forced expulsion of persons with a valid claim to refugee status.

The case of the two Iraqi refugees ordered to leave in 1996 remained pending at year's end awaiting refugee processing to travel to a third country.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

In theory the election law and Constitution allow citizens to change their Government by peaceful means however, the Government continues to restrict citizens' ability to change their government peacefully by interfering in elections.

Azerbaijan is a republic with a strong presidency, and a legislature that the Constitution describes as independent. However, in practice the legislature's independence from the executive is marginal. The Parliament exercises little legislative initiative independent of the executive. As a result of the flawed 1995 parliamentary elections, the New Azerbaijan Party led by President Aliyev, along with other parties and nominally independent deputies loyal to the President, occupy the overwhelming majority of seats in the 125-member Parliament. Parties considering themselves as belonging to the opposition hold 14 seats. Opposition parties continued to be active outside the Parliament, agitating for their views in their newspapers and through public statements. However, the Government continued to deny registration to at least three opposition parties (see Section 2.b.).

The 1995 Constitution required the formulation of a municipal election law and the holding of municipal elections by November 1997. However, municipal elections were not held by the constitutionally mandated date and, as of year's end, such a law still had not been passed. The Government now has promised to hold municipal elections in 1999.

Parliamentary by-elections in July were marked by multiple voting by heads of families and ballot stuffing. The Government annulled the result in one district due to the high level of fraud.

In preparation for the October presidential election, the Government amended the election law to take broad account of recommendations of international organizations, including the OSCE. However, the Government took limited account of the international community's advice on election commissions. The OSCE/ODIHR final report noted that the law addressing the central election commission "influenced the entire structure and performance of the election administration" and undermined public confidence "in the election process and its integrity."

Five would-be opposition presidential candidates cited the belief that the election would not be fair and that the election commissions would not be impartial and boycotted the election. However, one moderate opposition leader and four other candidates ran against the incumbent president.

The October 11 presidential election was an improvement over the July by-elections, especially in regard to reduced multiple voting and the presence of domestic observers. However, some domestic and international observers witnessed ballot stuffing and irregularities in vote counting, and some were barred from observing the vote counting. Neither domestic nor international observers were allowed to monitor the compilation of the national vote totals. The observed irregularities and lack of transparency in vote counting led to serious doubts about the accuracy of the 76 percent of the vote officially recorded for President Aliyev. International observers, including the OSCE/ODIHR, concluded that the election did not meet international standards.

Courts did not give serious consideration to the complaints filed by runner-up E'tibar Mammedov, who charged that the President did not receive the necessary two-thirds vote to avoid a run-off. The Central Election Commission did not publish vote totals of election districts within the time period required by the election law, and by year's end, it had not published vote totals for election precincts, as prescribed by the election law.

During and prior to the election campaign, the Government took a number of steps to improve the election and overall political environment. In addition to the Government's amending the election law, it abolished press censorship (see Section 2.a.), ended the criminal investigation of certain opposition figures (see Section 2.b.), allowed the opposition to conduct some rallies, and gave registered opposition presidential candidates access to state broadcast media. On the other hand, state media's reporting on the election was biased heavily in favor of the President. The Central Election Commission and local commissions were insufficiently representative and did not function impartially. The Government did not fully respect freedom of assembly (see Section 2.b.). The Government did not carry out the constitutional mandate to conduct municipal elections. Furthermore, after the presidential election, as the opposition contested the validity of the election, the Government reversed course and allowed no more public demonstrations and launched several lawsuits against opposition and independent newspapers (see Sections 2.a. and 2.b.).

There are no legal restrictions on women's participation in politics. However, traditional social norms restrict women's roles in politics. In past elections, and in the July parliamentary by-elections, in a practice known as family voting, men often cast the votes of their wives and other female members of their families. In the October presidential election, this practice was seen less often. There are 11 female Members of Parliament and 2 women with ministerial rank.

There are no restrictions on the participation of minorities in politics as individuals. However, explicitly ethnically or religiously based parties were prohibited from participating in past elections (see Section 2.b.). Members of indigenous ethnic minorities such as Talysh, Lezghis, and Kurds occupy some senior government positions.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

Several human rights organizations monitor the human rights situation in the country. For the most part, the Government posed no objections to international human rights groups. Some of these groups investigate human rights abuses and disseminate their findings through the media. However, the Government has been critical of certain domestic human rights activists who have raised politically sensitive issues.

The Government has demonstrated a limited willingness to discuss human rights problems with international and domestic nongovernmental organizations (NGO's). The ICRC has had access to prisoners of war as well as civilians held in relation to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. However, the ICRC has requested and been denied access to prisoners not related to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict being held in special security and other prisons.

Government officials occasionally criticize human rights activists. The chief prosecutor threatened the chairman of the Azerbaijan Human Rights Center, Eldar Zeynalov, with criminal prosecution if he continued to claim that Azerbaijan held political prisoners. Zeynalov's organization continues these claims about political prisoners, and he has faced no legal action.

A government newspaper in one case accused a representative of a human rights NGO of being a "foreign spy."

The Ministry of Justice continued to deny registration to several local human rights NGO's, but the Government has not tried to halt their activities. Registration enables a human rights organization to maintain a bank account legally, rent property, and generally to act as a legal entity. Lack of registration makes it harder, but not impossible, for a human rights group to function.

The ICRC conducted education programs on international humanitarian law for officials of the Ministries of Interior and Defense, and for university and secondary school students.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution provides for equal rights without respect to gender, race, nationality or national origin, religion, language, social status, or membership in political parties, trade unions, or other public organizations. However, in the wake of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, there is widespread anti-Armenian sentiment in society. Preventing discrimination is not a major government priority.

Discussion of violence against women is a taboo subject in Azerbaijan's patriarchal society. In rural areas, women have no real recourse against violence by their husbands, regardless of the law. Rape is severely punishable, but, especially in rural areas, only a small fraction of offenses against women are reported or prosecuted. Police statistics note 41 cases of rape in the first 9 months of the year. These figures probably reflect underreporting, especially from the conservative rural areas. There are no specific laws concerning spousal abuse or spousal rape.

Women nominally enjoy the same legal rights as men, including the right to participate in all aspects of economic and social life. In general women have extensive opportunities for education and work. However, traditional social norms continue to restrict women's roles in the economy. Representation of women is sharply lower in higher levels of the work force. There are few women in executive positions in leading economic enterprises.

Eighteen women's NGO's are registered and deal with the problems of women. The Association for the Defense of Rights of Azerbaijani Women spends most of its time fighting uniquely post-Soviet problems. It has helped divorced women, widows, and wives whose husbands are in prison, all of whom have become socially and legally vulnerable since the fall of the Soviet Union. It assisted widows whose landlords privatized their apartments and then evicted them. It also worked with divorced women who feel treated unfairly by divorce courts.

The Constitution and laws commit the Government to protecting the rights of children to education and health. Difficult economic circumstances limit the Government's ability to carry out these commitments. Education is compulsory, free, and universal until the age of 17. The Constitution places children's rights on the same footing as those of adults. The Criminal Code prescribes severe penalties for crimes against children. The Government provides minimum standards of health care for children, although the quality of medical care overall has fallen significantly since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Government has authorized subsidies for children in an attempt to shield families against economic hardship in the wake of price liberalization. The subsidies do not come close to covering the shortfall in family budgets, and the Government does not have the financial means to meet its commitments. There are a large number of refugee and displaced children living in substandard conditions in refugee camps and public buildings. Children sometimes beg on the streets of Baku and other towns.

There is no known social pattern of abuse of children.

The law on support for the disabled, enacted in 1993, prescribes priority for invalids and the disabled in obtaining housing, as well as discounts for public transport, and pension supplements. The Government does not have the means in its current financial crisis to fulfill its commitments. There are no special provisions in the law mandating accessibility to buildings for the disabled.

The outbreak of hostilities and anti-Armenian riots in the final years of the Soviet Union led to the expulsion of many Armenians and the departure of others. An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Armenians still live in Azerbaijan, mostly in mixed Azerbaijani-Armenian families. Some have changed their nationality, as reported in their passports, to Azerbaijani. With the nearly complete departure of the Armenian population, the number of problems reported by this ethnic minority has decreased. Armenians have complained of discrimination in employment and harassment at schools and workplaces and of refusal of local government authorities to grant Armenians passports or pay pensions. Armenian widows have had permits to live in Baku revoked. However, some persons of mixed Armenian-Azerbaijani descent continue to occupy government positions.

There are credible reports that ethnic Russians experience societal discrimination.

Indigenous ethnic minorities such as the Talysh, Lezghis, Avars, and Georgians do not suffer discrimination. However, Meskhetian Turks displaced from Central Asia as well as Kurdish displaced persons from the Lachin region complain of discrimination.

Jews do not suffer from discrimination, and the country is remarkably free from anti-Semitism. However, in a few isolated cases, government officials or those allied with the Government have used veiled anti-Semitic comments against perceived opponents for politically motivated reasons. For example, government newspapers made a number of references to the ethnic affiliation (Jewish) of the director of the Azerbaijani service of Radio Liberty in the context of criticizing Radio Liberty for unbalanced coverage of events in the country (see Section 2.a.).

In the area of the country controlled by insurgent (Armenian) forces, the Armenians forced approximately 550,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis to flee their homes. The regime that now controls these areas effectively has banned them from all spheres of civil, political, and economic life.

a. The Right of Association

Most labor unions still operate as they did under the Soviet system and remain tightly linked to the Government. The Constitution provides for freedom of association, including the right to form labor unions. However, one or another subbranch of the government-run Azerbaijani Labor Federation organizes most industrial and white-collar workers. Most major industries remain state-owned.

An independent union of oil workers that was displaced by a progovernment union in 1997 has not been revived. In 1997 the state oil company formed a progovernment union, the Azerbaijan Union of Oil and Gas Industry Workers, which took over the former independent oil workers union without a vote of the union membership. It continues to operate without a vote of its rank and file workers. An independent group of oil workers, the Committee to Defend the Rights of Azerbaijani Oil Workers, operates outside of established trade union structures and promotes the interests of workers in the petroleum sector.

The Constitution provides for the right to strike, and there are no legal restrictions on strikes or provisions for retribution against strikers. After a history of wildcat strikes in the oil industry in which some striking workers were fired, there were no reported strikes in that sector during the year. Oil workers continue to demand restoration of wage arrears amounting to several months pay. They do so internally but not through public protest. There are no established mechanisms to avoid wildcat strikes.

Unions are free to form federations and to affiliate with international bodies however, none has done so.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

A law passed in 1996 provides for collective bargaining agreements to set wages in state enterprises. A labor inspectorate was established in 1997. However, these laws have not produced an effective system of collective bargaining between unions and enterprise management. Government-appointed boards and directors run the major enterprises and set wages. Unions effectively do not participate in determining wage levels. In a carryover from the Soviet system, both management and workers are considered members of the professional unions.

There are no export processing zones. Although there has been a United Nations Development Program-supported effort under way to create an economic zone in Sumgait since 1995, Parliament has not considered legislation to create such a zone.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution allows forced or compulsory labor only under states of emergency or martial law or as the result of a court decision affecting a condemned person. The Government has not invoked this clause. Two departments in the General Prosecutors Office (the Department of Implementation of the Labor Code and the Department for Enforcement of the Law on Minors) enforce the prohibition on forced or compulsory labor. There are no constitutional provisions or laws specifically prohibiting forced and bonded labor by children, but such practices are not known to occur. There were no reports during the year of compulsory cotton picking by children or adults.

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment

The minimum employment age is 16 years. Primary school education is compulsory, free, and universal. Children are normally in school until the age of 17. The law allows children between the ages of 14 and 15 to work with the consent of their parents and limits the workweek of children between the ages of 14 and 16 to 24 hours per week. Children at the age of 15 may work if the workplace's labor union does not object. There is no explicit restriction on the kinds of labor that 15-year-old children may perform with union consent. The Labor and Social Security Ministry has primary enforcement responsibility for child labor laws. With high adult unemployment, there have been few, if any, complaints of abuses of child labor laws. The Government does not specifically prohibit forced and bonded labor by children, but such practices are not known to occur (see Section 6.c.).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Government sets the nationwide administrative minimum wage by decree. It is $3.00 (12,500 manat) per month. The wage is not sufficient to provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. The recommended monthly wage level to meet basic subsistence needs was estimated to be $80 (310,000 manat). Since most persons who work earn more than the minimum wage, enforcing its low level is not a major issue in labor or political debate.

The disruption of economic links with the rest of the former Soviet Union continues to affect employment in many industries. Idle factory workers typically receive less than half of their former wage. Under these conditions, many workers rely on the safety net of the extended family. More workers and unemployed persons turn to second jobs and makeshift employment in the informal sector, such as operating the family car as a taxi, selling produce from private gardens, or operating small roadside shops. Combinations of these and other strategies are the only way for broad sectors of the urban population to reach a subsistence income level.

The legal workweek is 40 hours. There is a 1-hour lunch break per day and shorter breaks in the morning and afternoon. The Government attempts to enforce this law in the private sector of registered private businesses, but does not enforce these rules in the informal sector where the majority of citizens make their living.

Health and safety standards exist, but they usually are ignored in the workplace. Workers cannot leave dangerous work conditions without fear of losing their jobs.

The world is watching: human rights behind the Azerbaijani scenes

Azerbaijan, often translated from Persian as “the land of fire”, probably in reference to the famed Zoroastrian temples, erected around burning gas vents in the ground, is the largest state in the Caucasus region of Eurasia, with an area of 86,600 sq km. The country is mainly known for its oil springs, natural gas sources and, this year, for hosting the Eurovision Song Contest 2012. But what do we really know about the Republic of Azerbaijan?

At the crossroads

Azerbaijan, also spelled Azerbaidzhan, officially Azerbaijani Republic, is a nation of approximately 9 million, consisting of a majority of Turkic-speaking Azerbaijanis (Azeris) and a Muslim population, which is mainly shia. This oil-rich state is located in the Southwestern Asia, on the southern flanks of the Caucasus mountains, and borders Russia, the Caspian Sea, Iran, Armenia and Georgia. The exclave of Naxçıvan (Nakhichevan) is located southwest of Azerbaijan proper, bounded by Armenia, Iran, and Turkey.

The origins of Azerbaijan can be traced back to the 4th century BC. In the 19 th century, still as a part of the Russian empire, the country experienced an unprecedented oil boom, attracting international investment. By the beginning of the 20 th century, almost 50% of the world’s oil was supplied by Azerbaijan (an estimate of 11.4 million tons of oil), the birthplace of oil-refining industry. Currently, Caspian oil is supplied through a pipeline running from Baku, the country’s capital, through Georgia to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Azerbaijan also has large gas reserves.

The country was briefly independent from 1918 to 1920, following the collapse of the Russian Empire, and was subsequently incorporated into the Soviet Union for 70 years, finally gaining independence from the USSR in 1991. However, territorial disputes are still rife in the country, the most notorious being the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

The Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (province) (within the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR)), a region acquired by Russia in 1813, was established as an Armenian-majority autonomous oblast on 7 July 1923. Detached from the Armenian SSR by the Karabakh mountain range, Nagorno-Karabakh thus became a minority enclave within Azerbaijan.

Nationalism arose in both Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, resulting in ethnic antagonisms between Armenians and Azerbaijanis growing inflamed over the issue. The tensions came to a head in 1988, when the soviet of Nagorno Karabakh attempted to secede from Azerbaijan and requested it be reassigned under the Armenian SSR. Again, this aggravated tensions between the two countries, leading to the ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijani villages in Armenia. The violence persisted, and an increasing number of people fled from both countries.

Thereafter, inspired by the independence declarations of several union republics, the Karabakh Soviet proclaimed independence on 2 September 1991, which led to more violence, while Azerbaijan gradually lost military and political control over the region. Total war broke out in February 1992, with a ceasefire eventually being announced on 16 May 1994. This ceasefire has largely held, despite periodical violations. The self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakhhas has held several independent elections however Azerbaijan has declared these actions illegal under international law. At the beginning of the 21st century, the independence of the self-proclaimed enclave nation was not recognized internationally. In 2008, UN General Assembly Resolution 62/243 reaffirmed “continued respect and support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Azerbaijan “within its internationally recognized borders”. To this day, the conflict remains unresolved, and Armenians still occupy about one-seventh of Azerbaijan’s territory, where only a few Azerbaijanis remain. There are still 800,000 refugees and internally displaced persons scattered around the country. The crisis has the potential to flare up again, since many fear that Azerbaijan may use its revenues from oil to build up a strong army and take the region back by force.

Modern-day Azerbaijan

In March 1992, Azerbaijan became a member of the United Nations, and in 2001, a member of the Council of Europe. In that same year, the country officially replaced the Cyrillic with the Latin alphabet, an example of how Azerbaijan gradually seeks to approach the West.

Economically, oil remains crucial to the country. In 1994, Azerbaijan signed an oil contract worth $7.4bn with a Western consortium. The country witnessed high economic growth between 2006 and 2008, largely attributable to oil exports, but also traceable in some non-oil sectors, including construction, banking, and real estate. However, the economy as a whole has not benefited as much as it might have done. The current global economic slowdown presents some challenges for the Azerbaijani economy, and there is still a striking contrast between the nation’s cosmopolitan capital Baku, which has rapidly transformed itself into a highly developed modern city, and the rest of the country.

The country staged a big comeback in the news last year, when the Azerbaijanis Eldar & Nigar won the 56th Eurovision Song Contest, held in Germany in May 2011.

The world is watching…Eurovision puts spotlight on Azerbaijan human rights.

Eurovision is the most popular non-sporting event in the world and will be watched by about 125 million viewers from 42 countries. The contest, therefore, is a chance for the country’s rulers to show the progress this nation has made. But human rights activists claim that the government, led by authoritarian president Ilham Aliyev, is using the event to deflect criticism from the country’s seriously damaged/deteriorated human rights record.

Several independent bodies, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have denounced violations of democratic and personal rights committed by the government, which has severely restricted freedom of assembly. Officials forbid any kind of demonstrations, fearing that the revolutions in Central Asia will spread to Azerbaijani turf, and police forcibly detain demonstrators and constantly prosecute dozens on misdemeanour charges. In January 2011, several Azerbaijani opposition groups that were excluded from the new parliament elected in November 2010 formed an opposition alliance called the Public Chamber. That body organized demonstrations in Baku in March, April, and May to demand democratic reforms and measures to eradicate corruption.

Electoral rights, access to water, state-authorized violence, freedom of religion, political prisoners and freedom of the media, are just some of the rights violated by the government. Illegal evictions. Furthermore, an estimated 4000 houses have been demolished in Baku alone over the past three years, and international media show general concern for the increasing number of incidents of harassment, attacks and violence against civil society and social network activists and journalists in the country.

Freedom of Media

As the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety reports, violence against journalists has not abated, and the media is harassed with impunity. With internet media gaining prominence, the government has turned its attention to prominent bloggers. The authorities continue to imprison journalists and bloggers who express dissenting opinions, and defamation is a criminal offense, which the government frequently uses for political gain. So far, Azerbaijan is ranked ‘Not Free’ by Freedom House in its annual Freedom of the Press survey, with a score of 79 out of 100.

Indeed, on May 12 2011, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning Azerbaijani “human rights violations” and “oppression of opposition forces”. In the meantime, Azerbaijan continues to deny access to the country for the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Rapporteur on political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

The multitude of human rights abuses have sparked demands to boycott Eurovision in Azerbaijan. However, a spokeswoman of the European Broadcasting Union has insisted that the contest is not political. Azerbaijan has spent about 566.6 million manats ($721 million) on construction for the event it seems there is no way back. The show must go on.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

Leading human rights NGOs faced a hostile environment for investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. For example, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Prosecutor’s Office separately summoned human rights defender and former political prisoner Ogtay Gulaliyev on May 6 and May 13. Gulaliyev reportedly informed independent media outlet Turan that the ministry expressed concerns about his Facebook posts on repression and torture, including the July 2018 Ganja case (see section 1.c.). According to a May 13 Turan report, the Prosecutor General’s Office issued a statement that evening accusing Gulaliyev of intentionally spreading untrue information that undermined political stability and cast a shadow on law enforcement measures. According to the statement, officials had warned Gulaliyev that if he continued to do so, more serious measures within the law would be taken against him, including criminal prosecution.

On October 29, Gulaliyev was struck by a car while crossing a Baku intersection on foot, causing head trauma that resulted in a cerebral hemorrhage and coma. Doctors did not perform surgery on him until October 30. Some activists and Gulaliyev’s sons stated the collision was an attack on Gulaliyev for his recently announced campaign against torture and his advocacy for those accused of wrongdoing by the government in connection with the July 2018 unrest in Ganja, and that doctors had purposefully withheld timely medical treatment after the accident. Other activists said there was no evidence the collision was intentional and that Gulaliyev received the standard care from a deeply flawed health-care system. The government-controlled Heydar Aliyev Foundation covered the costs of Gulaliyev’s transfer and treatment in a private hospital in Turkey, where he remained in a coma at year’s end.

The government continued to impose severe restrictions on the operations of domestic and international human rights groups. Application of restrictive laws to constrain NGO activities and other pressure continued at the high level of recent years. Activists also reported that authorities refused to register their organizations or grants and continued investigations into their organizations’ activities. As a result, some human rights defenders were unable to carry out their professional responsibilities due to various government obstacles, such as the travel ban on Intigam Aliyev and the frozen bank accounts of Intigam Aliyev and Asabali Mustafayev.

While the government communicated with some international human rights NGOs and responded to their inquiries, on numerous occasions, it criticized and intimidated other human rights NGOs and activists. The Ministry of Justice continued to deny registration or placed burdensome administrative restrictions on human rights NGOs on arbitrary grounds.

Government officials and state-dominated media outlets engaged in rhetorical attacks on human rights activists and political opposition leaders (see section 3), accusing them of attempting to destabilize the country and working on behalf of foreign interests.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government objected to statements from international bodies criticizing what authorities called interference in the country’s internal affairs. For example, government officials and members of the National Assembly criticized the OSCE/ODIHR assessment of the 2018 presidential election, stating it had been written in advance of the election to smear the country (see section 3).

Government Human Rights Bodies: Citizens may appeal violations committed by the state or by individuals to the ombudsman for human rights for Azerbaijan or the ombudsman for human rights of the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic. The ombudsman may refuse to accept cases of abuse that are more than one year old, anonymous, or already being handled by the judiciary. Human rights NGOs criticized the Ombudsman’s Office as lacking independence and effectiveness in cases considered politically motivated.

Human rights offices in the National Assembly and the Ministry of Justice also heard complaints, conducted investigations, and made recommendations to relevant government bodies, but they were similarly accused of ignoring violations in politically sensitive cases.

Azerbaijan (Human Rights)

It is a great privilege to initiate the final debate of the year this afternoon. At the beginning of November, I went to Baku to attend the UN internet governance forum, and I was taken there by Nominet—I wish to put on record my thanks for its generosity.

It might seem strange for the United Nations to hold an internet governance forum in Azerbaijan. The internet is one of the most free means of communication—it was instrumental in facilitating recent political uprisings during the Arab spring—but unfortunately the same cannot be said in Azerbaijan. Before discussing the human rights situation, I wish to take a moment to describe this country on the Caspian. It is a very beautiful, wild and mountainous country in the Caucasus. At no point in its history has Azerbaijan been a liberal democracy, so unfortunately it has no such traditions to recover. From 1805 to 1991, it was part of the Russian empire, latterly of course in the Soviet Union. In fact, it was in Baku that the Tsars imprisoned Stalin. In the last 20 years, the country has prioritised rapid economic development, based on its substantial oil and gas reserves. It is, I am afraid to say, the spiritual home of the 4x4, and it has an unresolved conflict with its neighbour, Armenia.

That context may explain the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, but it certainly does not excuse it. This year, Azerbaijan has played host to two major international events. The first, as many people are aware, was the Eurovision song contest. The second was the UN internet governance forum that I attended. Those two events should have been an opportunity for Azerbaijan to step forward and open up. Unfortunately, the opposite seems to have happened, with the authorities clamping down even more aggressively on journalists and critics of the regime.

At the moment, Baku is plastered with huge posters of President Aliyev, whose father—incidentally—was also president. Most people, when they have photographs taken for political purposes, choose ones that are flattering. Unfortunately, I found President Aliyev’s 6-foot-wide grin more of a crocodile smile.

The petty reality of life in an autocracy was brought home to me on the first morning when all the traffic on the motorway was held up for 20 minutes to allow the official motorcade to pass through, but the problems are far more serious than that. One might expect a Government who are trying to impress the rest of the world to be on their best behaviour, but while I was there the authorities continued to jam the BBC television channel.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)

While I was there, the authorities continued to jam the BBC television channel and they held the trial of Avaz Zeynalli, who was accused of criticising the regime. The evidence was claimed to have been videoed, but neither the defendant nor his lawyer were shown the film. Finally, they hacked into the computer of Neelie Kroes’s staff while she attended the conference.

There is a long history of violence against journalists in Azerbaijan, which is documented by the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, an Azeri non-governmental organisation. According to the institute, in 2005, Elmar Huseynov, the editor of Monitor, was gunned down in Baku. In 2011, Rafiq Tagi, a critic of Iran and the impact of Islam on Azerbaijan, was stabbed and subsequently died. The level of intolerance is well illustrated by the case of Agil Khalil, who was assaulted and stabbed after investigating reports of trees being burned in an olive grove. In April this year, Idrak Abbasov was attacked by employees of the state oil company of Azerbaijan while filming the destruction of residential properties near an oil field outside Baku. He was beaten unconscious and was in hospital for a month. It is thought that he may have been targeted for exposing human rights abuses in the run-up to the Eurovision song contest. In fact, three weeks previously, he had received The Guardian journalism award at the Index on Censorship freedom of expression awards here in London. There is then the case of Khadija Ismayilova, who I met at the IGF. She had previously worked for Radio Free Europe. Her flat was bugged and a sex video of her, which was filmed secretly, was posted on the internet.

Amnesty International has asked, in particular, that I raise the case of Mehmen Hoseynov, who is facing five years in prison. He is accused of hooliganism for filming a protest on 21 May. Will the Minister raise his case with the Government of Azerbaijan and call for all charges against him to be dropped immediately and unconditionally? Index on Censorship is also concerned about the cases of Minas Sargsyan, Hilal Mamedov, Anar Bayramli, Jamal Ali and Faramaz Novruzoglu. I have e-mailed the Minister with the details of their cases, rather than detaining the House with the long stories attached to them, so that his office can look into them.

Those cases are not isolated incidents they are part of a systematic repression of free speech in Azerbaijan. In Azerbaijan, defamation is a criminal offence. Media workers are persistently defamed and persecuted. Azerbaijan is the top jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia. Index on Censorship estimates that there are currently 70 political prisoners in Azerbaijani jails. Freedom of expression, assembly and association are limited.

I was personally involved in trying to help during an election in Azerbaijan, but the person I was trying to help was not even allowed to enter the country to stand in the election. Does the hon. Lady agree that, until that sort of thing changes, this will not be a great country?

The hon. Gentleman’s point is particularly pertinent because there will be a presidential election in Azerbaijan in 2013. It would be excellent if we could see some improvement in the openness of Azerbaijani society, because it would give us greater confidence that these elections are freely and properly run and that people expressing many different opinions can stand.

The year 2011 also saw mass protests in Baku and Guba. They were put down extremely aggressively and some of the demonstrators were imprisoned. Furthermore, the state controls the conventional media—television, radio and newspapers—in a top-down way. Economic development and urban renewal around Baku has been pursued without regard for individuals’ property rights. The property of hundreds of people has been expropriated to make way for luxury developments, and the Government have forcefully evicted home owners, sometimes in the middle of the night. They have been left homeless and destitute. In Baku, many people still live in a Kafkaesque world where news stands do not sell any newspaper. In this situation, the internet provides a news space, and the Government claim that 60% of Azeri people have broadband access, but the American organisation Freedom House’s assessment is that the net is only half free, because the authorities mount cyber-attacks on dissident websites and arrest bloggers and IT users for their political writings on the web.

As a member of the Council of Europe and signatory of the European convention on human rights, Azerbaijan is not simply breaching human rights, but breaching its international agreements. In fact, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe will be discussing a draft resolution and report by rapporteur Strasser on political prisoners in Azerbaijan in January. The Azeri Government refused to co-operate with rapporteur Strasser, but Amnesty International says that his report is thorough and extensive.

Last week, on 12 December, the Parliamentary Assembly’s monitoring committee said:

“The combination of the restrictive implementation of freedoms with unfair trials and the undue influence of the executive, results in the systemic detention of people who may be considered prisoners of conscience”.

“Recently adopted amendments to the Criminal Code…which have increased penalties for”

“‘unauthorised’ gatherings…raise concern, as do alleged cases of torture and…the impunity of perpetrators.”

As chairman of the all-party group on Azerbaijan, I recognise some of the concerns and challenges that the hon. Lady raises. She talked earlier about the expropriation of property and land, but would she not agree that the expropriation of the land and property of hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis by Armenia in 1992 is also a cause for concern and very wrong?

I do not think that an international conflict justifies Government repression of their own people, whether in areas of conflict—some of the cases, about which I have written to the Minister, relate to the Nagorno-Karabakh problems—or elsewhere. The situation there simply does not justify the abuse of human rights of Azerbaijani people across the country and, in particular, in the capital city.

Given the situation and the UK’s strong relationship with Azerbaijan, will the Minister tell us what the British Government are doing to put pressure on the Azerbaijanis to improve their human rights record? In particular, will the Government support a strong resolution calling on Azerbaijan to honour its commitments and condemn the violation of basic freedoms—the resolution will be discussed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in January? Will the Minister also support rapporteur Strasser’s report on political prisoners in Azerbaijan?

It is important to remind ourselves that, when the British Government and Parliament stand up for human rights in other places, we do make progress. Last year many of us signed an early-day motion calling for the release of Emin Milli. He was imprisoned after posting a satirical video on YouTube criticising Government spending on importing donkeys from Germany. He was released, came to Britain, was awarded a Chevening scholarship and has just been awarded his master’s degree. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

I thank the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) for introducing today’s debate and my hon. Friends the Members for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) and for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for the interest they have shown.

This is an important issue. The Foreign Secretary has said repeatedly that the defence and promotion of human rights needs to be a central theme in the United Kingdom’s foreign policy. It is important that that priority is reflected in our engagement, both private and public, with all countries in the world where there are human rights concerns and that we should be consistent in having those conversations with leaders of all countries, whether those with which we have few diplomatic or commercial dealings or those—Azerbaijan is a case in point—where there is an important United Kingdom commercial and investment relationship. In replying to the hon. Lady, I am glad of the opportunity to explain the Government’s position and place on record some of the actions that the Government have taken, and continue to take, to try to support human rights defenders and promote a culture of the rule of law and respect for human rights in Azerbaijan.

As the hon. Lady acknowledged, Azerbaijan is a young and fast developing country with an increasing presence on the international stage. It was only 20 years ago that Azerbaijan gained its independence from the Soviet Union. It is a committed contributor to the international security assistance force mission in Afghanistan. Azerbaijan was elected as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in October 2011 and, as the hon. Lady said, this year it hosted the Eurovision song contest. It is natural that, as Azerbaijan starts to secure a higher profile and play a greater role in world affairs, so the world will take a greater interest in Azerbaijan’s progress, including in meeting its international human rights commitments. One of the things I say to many of my ministerial counterparts from other countries when we have conversations about human rights is that we in the United Kingdom sometimes find it uncomfortable or embarrassing when the various international bodies of which we are members hold us to account and challenge us over our record on some aspects of international human rights instruments, but that is a part of life in the world community today.

I will look carefully at the texts of the two resolutions that the hon. Lady talked about—from the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe—although obviously I will want to see the final versions of the resolutions that emerge from the respective parliamentary debates. However, whether we are looking at the Council of Europe, the United Nations Human Rights Committee—where Azerbaijan is due for its periodic review in 2013—or the reports that the European Commission draws up to examine progress by the six countries that are members of the EU’s eastern partnership, it is important to note that Azerbaijan’s human rights record, like other areas of its development, is rightly under international scrutiny the whole time.

The hon. Lady made a good point about the forthcoming presidential election. I very much hope that the Azerbaijani authorities will show, in actions as well as words, their clear commitment to a free and fair democratic election, and that they will welcome and facilitate the presence of international observers who will be able to ensure that international standards are met. When I visited Baku in 2010, I had a meeting with the redoubtable Dame Audrey Glover, who was heading one of the international observer teams for the parliamentary elections. It will be important to have international observers with the strength of character and independence of spirit of Dame Audrey who can report openly and boldly to the world community on what is happening during the presidential election.

I hope that those people who have fled Azerbaijan will be allowed to go back for the presidential election, perhaps to stand in some capacity in the election. I hope that Azerbaijan will encourage that at the forthcoming presidential election, because it certainly did not do so at the last one.

It is always welcome, and right, when citizens of a country who have been obliged to flee feel that they can return freely. As my hon. Friend knows, however, one of the tragic legacies of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is that people on the Azerbaijani and the Armenian sides of the conflict remain displaced decades later. That is why the United Kingdom strongly supports the continuing efforts of the Minsk group to bring about a resolution to that tragic human story. It is in the interests of both countries, and of the Caucasus region more generally, that we should achieve a settlement of the conflict and create political stability. That would attract greater investment and create more prosperity in the region and allow those people who were displaced by that bloody war to return to their homes.

Does my right hon. Friend support the activities of the Azerbaijan forum for democracy, freedom and human rights in encouraging a free press in that country? Ironically, some people here do not support a free press in our own country. Indeed, some Members of this House would like to change the rules on defamation to make it more difficult to defame the dead.

In my conversations with Ministers, not only in Azerbaijan but throughout the eastern partnership, I certainly make clear the importance not only of electoral freedoms but of journalistic and broader media freedoms, so I can give my hon. Friend that assurance.

We share the disappointment of our European partners at the slow progress that is being made in Azerbaijan on implementing reforms that would improve the human rights situation there and bring the country closer to the international standards to which she has committed herself. In addition to our bilateral engagement with the Government of Azerbaijan, we work with local civil society organisations to identify areas in which we can make a positive difference. Our embassy in Baku and officials in London regularly engage with non-governmental organisations and human rights defenders, and we will continue to support a range of projects inside Azerbaijan through our embassy. So far, these have included projects to advance property rights, highlight gender issues, promote media freedom and support monitoring of the legal system. For example, officials from our embassy in Baku met independent media organisations to discuss media freedom in the city of Ganja last month.

The United Kingdom also continues to raise human rights with Azerbaijan multilaterally. We welcome the human rights action plan, which President Aliyev has approved. The test is going to be translating that action plan into concrete reality and everyday practice. It is important that those commitments start to produce significant results.

Earlier this month, the Government delegation at the Council of Europe raised a number of human rights issues with the Azerbaijani counterparts, including free and fair elections, press freedom and the need to tackle corruption. We are also reminding Azerbaijan in the light of its own upcoming presidency of the Council of Europe in 2014 of the need to fulfil its obligations, including in relation to strengthening institutions and increasing the accountability of public officials.

We support, too, the extensive work inside Azerbaijan of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, especially its work on media freedom and the rule of law. Last November, the OSCE office in Baku organised two workshops bringing together print and e-journalists and other media professionals, officials from regional police departments and the Ministry of Internal Affairs to promote further understanding and co-operation. Last month, the OSCE organised a training event on how to bring human rights cases effectively to the European Court of Human Rights.

The European Union, too, has an important role to play in Azerbaijan’s future. It has, after all, an excellent track record of assisting post-communist countries to achieve European democratic values and norms. Promoting democratic reforms, fundamental freedoms and human rights are key priorities in EU-Azerbaijan relations. We welcome the commitment President Aliyev made to political reform and democratic process in his recent meeting with EU Council President, Herman van Rompuy, and we encourage Azerbaijan to use the EU’s experience in democracy building. Azerbaijan’s membership of the eastern partnership provides her with an opportunity to get the kind of support and experience that will help her to carry through that democratic transition.

I am grateful to the Minister for his full reply, but because I am not sure how far along he is with his remarks, I want to ask him whether he will commit the British Government to take up the individual cases I mentioned. I do not know whether he is going to come on that.

I was grateful to the hon. Lady for sending my office details earlier this week of the cases she intended to raise. So far, we do not have direct contact with all the individuals she mentioned, but we know that Human Rights Watch does have those individual cases under review—and we support the work that Human Rights Watch is already carrying out. In previous meetings, I have raised individual cases with Azeri Ministers—particularly the case of the blogger Eynulla Fatullayev, who was subsequently released and pardoned. I think that was due not only to my intervention but to a sustained international campaign. I shall certainly ask for further advice on the individual cases that the hon. Lady has raised, so that I can consider opportunities to take up those cases—if, I make this caveat, we judge that that is going to help to secure the outcome that both she and I wish to see, which is a just outcome and respect for human rights and media freedom.

We played an active role in Azerbaijan’s universal periodic review by the UN Human Rights Council published in 2009. We are not satisfied that Azerbaijan has yet made sufficient progress on some of the recommendations made. Key recommendations in that review included that Azerbaijan

“effectively investigate and prosecute crimes and violations against journalists and human rights defenders and see that those responsible are punished.”

The review conclusions also asked that

“complaints of harassment of journalists and human rights defenders receive prompt response and that adequate measures for their safety are taken.”

Azerbaijan is scheduled for another review in 2013, and we will not hesitate to press for progress on these points, dating back to the 2009 review, and other issues of concern, including those raised by the hon. Lady today.

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are cornerstones of a democratic society. We are therefore concerned about reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International highlighting the difficult environment in which journalists work and the detentions of leading journalists and activists. The UK has raised high-profile cases at official and ministerial level, including in the recent past, and we are certainly willing to do so again. In addition to raising the Fatullayev case, we have met, and have remained in contact with, the brother of Vidadi Iskenderov, a human rights defender and political activist currently serving three years in prison on charges of interfering with the 2010 parliamentary elections. Embassy staff have also visited Shahin Hasani, the leader of the opposition Popular Front party, who is in prison for possession of ammunition, a charge he refutes.

The Government of Azerbaijan have indicated a willingness to improve the situation for journalists, and we hope rapid action is taken. On her recent visit to Baku to attend the UN internet governance forum, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Ms Dunja Mijatovic, commented that she had witnessed

“the political will of the Azerbaijani authorities to improve the current practices to ensure better compliance with OSCE media freedom commitments.”

OSCE representatives have worked with Azeri journalists to educate them on their rights. The UK has funded workshops to improve the situation for journalists and activists as well as to provide professional training, in order to help raise journalistic standards and encourage impartial and responsible reporting.

We have called on the authorities to allow freedom of association in Azerbaijan and are concerned that new laws are due to come into effect in January that will significantly increase the fines for unsanctioned protests. Azerbaijan should avoid obstructing citizens exercising their lawful right to protest. We call on protest organisers and the authorities to work together constructively to find a solution in line with European democratic norms. We will continue to monitor that situation closely.

On forced evictions and the compensation issue, our embassy is funding projects to increase public awareness of property rights and to promote international standards in order to prevent forced evictions. However, we must primarily look to the authorities in Azerbaijan to accept responsibility and play their part in securing a fair outcome. Property rights must be respected and where they are violated independent courts should uphold those rights. We also call on Azerbaijan to uphold the law and ensure freedom of religious practice. We urge the Azerbaijani authorities to adopt a form of non-military service for conscientious objectors to military service.

The UK is the largest single foreign investor in Azerbaijan. We are proud of our association with Azerbaijan and the work we are doing there to achieve mutual prosperity. Our position as a big investor also confers on us a responsibility to engage seriously on areas of policy where we and the Azerbaijanis may have differences, including human rights and the rule of law. We are well aware of that responsibility. I believe the Government have already shown that they are determined to have conversations, even difficult ones, on such issues with the Azerbaijani authorities, and we will continue to do so.

“Defense Line”: Human rights violations in Azerbaijan are on the rise

The human rights activist said that Akif Niftaliyev, a resident of Shamakhi, was immediately detained by the police for his video criticizing traffic police, was pressured and sent to administrative detention for 10 days by a court decision. “Although it is reflected in our constitution and laws, in fact it is formal. Not only the opposition, but also ordinary citizens do not have the right to express a different opinion. Free speech and criticism are considered a crime and punished immediately. Instead of investigating negative developments, such as torture, the authorities simply refute such claims. ”

Speaking about the detention of soldiers in Tartar on charges of espionage and their horrific torture in 2017, where at least 11 people were killed, Rufat Safarov said that the issue was addressed at the UN level, but the Azerbaijani government does not want to conduct a real investigation. “The executors should not go unpunished. Several low-ranking servicemen were arrested, given light sentences, and released before the end of their sentences. Yesterday, the head of state awarded those same people who took part in the Karabakh War.”

Zaur Akbar, co-founder of the “Defense Line”, said that given the gravity of the human rights situation in the country, they plan to announce the results of the monitoring at the end of each month. The results will be sent to the Azerbaijani public, international organizations and embassies.

“On the eve of Ramadan, we will appeal to President Ilham Aliyev, the Pardon Commission and the Parliamentary Committee on Legal Policy and Human Rights to release political prisoners,” said Zaur Akbar.

Zafar Ahmadli responded to the remarks about the presentation of a number of people as political prisoners, as well as the publicization of violations against some former MPs and officials: “As an organization, we do not prepare a list of political prisoners, we do not play a role in recognizing anyone as a political prisoner. Our goal is not to restore individuals, but to restore violated rights. We created this organization to register violated rights, to protect those rights, and to try to solve the problem. As for political prisoners, there are specific criteria set by the Council of Europe.

Rufat Safarov also commented on this issue, stating, “For example, we are criticized for condemning the events against Huseyn Abdullayev, who once served the regime. We still condemn the illegal actions of his time. But we cannot ignore the fact that he was mistreated. Even a reputable organization, such as the United Nations, has confirmed in a document that he was arrested for political motives and bias. Defending someone’s violated rights does not mean justifying their past actions”.

Human rights: Chad, Haiti and Armenian prisoners of war in Azerbaijan

This article is brought to you in association with the European Parliament.

Prisoners of war in the aftermath of the most recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan

Parliament deplores the violence that took place during the most recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh area between 27 September and 10 November last year. MEPs also express their grave concern about credible reports, according to which Azerbaijan has been holding and torturing Armenian prisoners of war and other captive persons in degrading conditions since the end of active hostilities.

MEPs urge the Government of Azerbaijan to provide exhaustive lists of all persons held in connection with the armed conflict and to provide information about their whereabouts and health, including of those who have died in captivity.

The resolution finally demands the immediate and unconditional release of all Armenian prisoners, both military and civilian, detained by Azerbaijan during and after the conflict, and that Azerbaijan refrain from detaining people arbitrarily in the future.

The text in full will be available here. (20.05.2021). It was adopted by 607 votes in favour, 27 against with 54 abstentions.

The situation in Chad

MEPs deplore the killing of Chadian President Idriss Déby and the recent violence and loss of life as a result of attacks by armed groups in the region. On 20 April this year, Mr Déby, who had been in power for 31 years, died in a military confrontation with rebel groups, one day after being declared the winner of the 11 April presidential elections.

Parliament also condemns the military seizure of power perpetrated by Chad’s Transitional Military Council (TMC) on 20 April following the death of President Déby, as well as the subsequent suspension of the country’s constitution and the dissolution of the government.

The resolution calls on the TMC to ensure an unhindered and swift return to constitutional order and to guarantee that democratic values are upheld, while noting the recent appointment of a civilian transitional government including members of some opposition groups as a first step in this direction.

For all the details, the resolution will be available in full here. (20.05.2021). It was adopted by 635 votes in favour, 27 against with 31 abstentions.

The situation in Haiti

Parliament urges the Haitian authorities to organise free, fair, transparent and credible legislative, local and presidential elections, and to guarantee sustainable security during these electoral processes.

The resolution states that a failure to hold elections in October 2020 triggered rule by decree, with reports of failed coup attempts signifying growing political and social instability in the country. Political opposition and civil society groups claim that Haitian President Jovenel Moïse’s mandate came to an end on 6 February this year, as ruled by the Haiti’s Superior Council of the Judiciary, and insist on the appointment of a provisional president. President Moïse, however, has so far refused to step down.

MEPs also reiterate their deep concern about the deteriorating humanitarian, political and security situation in Haiti and strongly condemn all human rights violations and acts of violence, especially the increase in kidnappings, child trafficking to the Dominican Republic, homicides and rape.

For all the details, the resolution will be available in full here. (20.05.2021). It was adopted by 639 votes in favour, 23 against with 31 abstentions.

Watch the video: German politicians aid the Aliyev regime in Azerbaijan. DW Documentary