Authorities in Azerbaijan are engaged in an “abusive strategy” to clampdown on freedom of expression ahead of elecitons next month, say Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The NGO claims political activists have been arrested on bogus charges, critical journalists jailed, peaceful demonstrations broken up and legislation adopted which imposes new restrictions on fundamental freedoms.
The organisation has questioned whether there can be a fair vote in the presidential election, scheduled for October 9, which are expected to result in the re-election of Ilham Aliyev, 51, who has ruled the mainly Muslim nation since 2003.
Giorgi Gogia the author of “Tightening the Screws: Azerbaijan’s Crackdown on Civil Society and Dissent”, said: “A vibrant public debate through the media and freedom to participate in peaceful public demonstrations are part and parcel of free and fair elections.
“It will hardly be a free and fair vote if so many people who criticise the authorities and report the news in the country are in jail or otherwise harassed into silence.”
HRW has called on the Azerbaijan government to release anyone detained on “unsubstantiated, politically-motivated charges”.
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The organisation said 39 individuals had been detained, charged, convicted, or harassed between February 2012 and August 2013.
It said authorities in Azerbaijan have long had a poor human rights record, but the number of arrests, the adoption of harsher laws, and extensive government efforts to stop and prevent peaceful public protests are increasing.
Gogia added: “Prosecuting people who criticize the authorities and report on issues of public interest is a cynical and transparent attempt to stifle government critics. The authorities should stop using trumped-up charges against its critics and free those who have been locked up.”
He said since January at least six journalists have been imprisoned on spurious charges in apparent retaliation for critical and investigative journalism. The report also documents four cases in 2013 in which threats, smear campaigns and violent attacks were clearly used to try to silence critical journalists and a writer.
The press freedom watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists, has also criticised Azerbaijan over press freedoms.
“It appears that the government is trying to protect itself and avoid a discourse on issues of public interest by arresting and intimidating journalists,” Gogia said. “Instead, it is hurting Azerbaijani society and harming Azerbaijan’s international standing.”
“There appears to be a clear disconnect in Baku’s drive to boost its importance in the international arena and its failure to respect international standards,” Gogia said. “Azerbaijan’s international partners should set clear benchmarks on human rights if they are to succeed in persuading Baku to respect its commitments.”
Earlier this year Azerbaijan adopted a controversial law that Amnesty International claimed will target online freedom of speech . A new amendment to the country’s defamation law made “slander” and “insults” on the internet punishable by fines, imprisonment or hard labour.