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Want to Say... 2013
Statement delivered by Human Rights Club Chairman Rasul Jafarov at the pre-UPR session on Azerbaijan

Statement delivered by Human Rights Club Chairman Rasul Jafarov at the pre-UPR session on Azerbaijan

2013 March 28 ( Thursday )  12:19:28

 

Geneva, 27 March 2013
 
I am very pleased to be here today to deliver this statement on behalf of the Human Rights Club (the HRC), a Baku-based non-governmental organization working to protect and promote human rights in Azerbaijan. The HRC has been denied registration by the state for three consecutive years for political reasons. Our staff and supporters have also been subjected to a number of
other forms of pressure by the state, in particular following the launch of our new Art for Democracy campaign in December.
The HRC collaborated with two NGO coalitions that drafted submissions in connection with the upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Azerbaijan: one in coordination with members and partners of the Azerbaijan Human Rights House and the South Caucasus Network of Human Rights Defenders; and the other in coordination with the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan and its local partner NGOs. The Azerbaijani government has not conducted an official national consultation.
 
The HRC fully supports the statements made by the representatives of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety and the Legal Education Society. To avoid repeating points made by our colleagues, we have focused our own comments on two specific issues: restrictions on freedom of assembly; and politically motivated arrests and detentions – that is, the problem of political prisoners. I want to emphasize that the ongoing problems in these areas will have a significant impact on the conduct of the upcoming presidential election, as the election cannot be considered free and fair if the incumbent president’s political opponents cannot freely express their opinions
and conduct campaign activities.
 
Freedom of assembly
 
The Azerbaijani government has failed implement the points on freedom of assembly contained in Recommendation 18 made by Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Canada from the previous UPR in 20091. It has not strengthened efforts to guarantee freedom of assembly; in fact, rather 1 Strengthen its efforts to guarantee freedom of assembly and association, to respect the work of human rights defenders, and that legislation concerning NGOs is implemented accordingly (Netherlands); Take all necessary measures to ensure that the law “on freedom of assembly” is not applied in an unduly strict manner by the local authorities, to consider abolishing the pre-approval requirement for public assemblies altogether and to replace it with an obligation of notification for the organizers of public
assemblies (Germany); Uphold the respect of the right to peaceful assembly and ensure that the right is effectively implemented
(Sweden); Improve respect for the right to freedom of assembly in line with its domestic legislation and its obligations under
article 21 of the ICCPR (Canada).
 
than improving, the freedom of assembly situation has considerably worsened during the period now under review. Since January 2007, Baku’s Executive Authority has unjustifiably refused to grant permission for groups to hold protests in central Baku. Only pro-governmental groups are able to hold events in the city center – parades, concerts, flash mobs and etc., but not critical groups. Authorities responded to unauthorized protests by using excessive force to disperse crowds and carrying out mass arrests of protesters.
As a “permissible” venue, the Baku Executive Power typically offers the land surrounding a driving school 20 kilometers from the center of Baku. Besides being remote, the location is generally unsuitable for demonstrations. It is difficult to access, as the roads leading to the
driving school are in very poor condition, and noisy construction work is underway in the area.
 
In November 2012, Azerbaijan’s parliament passed restrictive amendments to the Law on Freedom of Assembly, which dramatically increased the penalties for organizing or participating in unsanctioned protests. Under the new provisions, protest participants can be fined between 500 and 1,000 AZN (increased from 7 to 13 AZN per the previous legislation), and organizers can be fined between 1,500 and 3,000 AZN if they are ordinary citizens, or between 3,000 and 6,000 AZN if they are officials. If the organizer is a legal entity – such as a political party or an NGO – it can be fined between 15,000 and 30,000 AZN.
 
Although these exorbitant fines have now been imposed on protesters on a number of occasions, I would like to draw your attention to one in particular. Earlier this month, on 10 March, hundreds of citizens gathered in the Baku city center to protest against a recent series of deaths of military conscripts in non-combat situations. Although the demonstrators behaved peacefully, without causing public disorder, police used excessive force, firing rubber bullets and deploying water cannons to disperse crowds. One protester, Popular Front Party activist Renad Najafov sustained a head injury for which he needed surgery. Five protesters were sentenced to between
five and seven days of administrative detention, and 19 demonstrators were fined a total of 10,000 AZN.
 
At least 10 persons who were fined large sums of money for participating in unsanctioned rallies have launched a civil disobedience campaign, refusing to pay the fines. In response, court bailiffs have conducted inspections of their homes and begun to confiscate property, including illegally seizing property belonging to their relatives or friends.
 
For example, court officers seized carpets from the apartment of Popular Front Party Youth Movement Chair Abulfaz Gurbanli’s parents. On another occasion, bailiffs confiscated the laptop and mobile phone of Free Youth Movement chairman Ulvi Hasanli. Some individuals
were fined as organizers because they had called for protest on Facebook; for example, Turgut Gambar, a board member of the N!DA civic movement, was fined 3,000 AZN, and Popular Front Party Deputy Chair Gozel Bayramli was fined 2,000 AZN.
 
In responding to criticism about the use of force to disperse protests, the Azerbaijani government often points to what it views as similar practices in other states, including European countries. This is a willful misinterpretation, as police in more developed democracies may sometimes use force to stop riots, but not excessive force, and not to disperse peaceful protests, which happens frequently in Azerbaijan.
 
We would suggest the following steps be included as recommendations to the Azerbaijani government in the upcoming UPR:
1. Designate suitable ‘permissible’ protest locations in central Baku;
2. Ensure that decisions regarding demonstration applications are made in an unbiased and transparent manner;
3. Cease the use of excessive force against peaceful protesters;
4. Stop carrying out mass arrests of peaceful protesters; and
5. Abolish legal provisions stipulating excessive fines for organizing or participating in unsanctioned protests.
 
Political prisoners
The issue of political prisoners has been a long-standing problem in Azerbaijan. Despite many calls from the international community – including the UN – to cease the imprisonment of persons for politically motivated reasons, such practices continue. Of particular concern is the high frequency of arrests of persons in connection with their criticism of the government. A vicious cycle has emerged, with releases of some political prisoners followed by arrests of others on similar grounds.
 
We recall that Azerbaijan refused to accept the part of Recommendation 16 made by Czech Republic from the last UPR which called on the government to “releas[e] persons held in prisons for their political views and adopt safeguards against arbitrary or politically motivated detention and trials including through ensuring full independence and transparency of judiciary.” Notably, over a four-year period, Azerbaijan also refused to cooperate with a Special Rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe who was tasked with examining the situation of political prisoners in the country.
 
Currently there are more than 50 political prisoners in Azerbaijan, including journalists, youth activists, members of the political opposition, and religious followers. Among these are 3 prisoners who are serving life sentences; they have now been imprisoned for more than 17 years.
 
I would like to call a few recent examples to your attention. On 5 February, the Republican Alternative Movement’s presidential candidate, Ilgar Mammadov, and the Deputy Chair of Musavat Party, journalist Tofig Yagublu, were arrested in connection with mass protests that
took place in the Ismayilli region on 23 and 24 January. They have both been sentenced to pretrial detention until 4 June, while an investigation is conducted into the charges against them.
 
Mammadov and Yagublu were accused of inciting the protests and assaulting a police officer, despite the fact that they did not arrive in Ismayilli until a day after the protests started, and only travelled there to speak to local residents about the causes of the protests. In addition to these two men, 17 other individuals remain in detention in connection with the protests. On 7 March, three members of the N!DA civic movement, Mahammad Azizov, Shahin Novruzlu and Bakhtiyar Guliyev, were arrested by Ministry of National Security officers. A large quantity of illegal drugs and Molotov cocktails were allegedly found in their apartments. On 9 March, national television stations broadcasted video apparently showing the three youth admitting their plans to organize a riot and to use violence in this riot. The confession was reported to have been made under threat of torture. On 14 March, a N!DA board member, Rashad Hasanov, was also arrested and charged with possession and distribution of firearms. Amnesty International considers these four N!DA activists to be prisoners of conscience.
 
We would suggest the following steps be included as recommendations to the Azerbaijani government in the upcoming UPR:
1. Immediately and unconditionally release all persons in detention or prison on the basis of politically motivated charges;
2. Cease the arrest of persons for politically motivated reasons; and 3. Allow citizens to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association without recourse.
 
In conclusion, I want to note that the human rights situation in Azerbaijan has become dire and is worsening on a daily basis. The Human Rights Council and other international bodies must increase pressure on Azerbaijan to fulfill its commitments to respect and protect human rights. We hope that the government will take the upcoming UPR seriously and use it as a starting point to implement crucial democratic reforms in the country.
 
For more information:
Rasul Jafarov
Chairman
Human Rights Club
Telephone: +994 50 586 35 37
E-mail: resul.j@gmail.com
Skype: rasul.jafarov

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