Mary Lawlor is Executive Director of Front Line Defenders, the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, based in Dublin. Photo: Conor McCabe

12 June 2015, 22:31

Human rights in Azerbaijan - and pigs will fly!

I never thought I would see the day when I would be in complete agreement with President Aliyev of Azerbaijan. On 30 May he tweeted, “The presence of a free society and the availability of all freedoms ensure the successful development of Azerbaijan”. He also mentioned that “National, ethnic and religious diversity is the greatest asset and a source of strength for the Azerbaijani people.”  Hear hear! or as a friend and former colleague of mine used to say when he heard politicians making election promises: “and will there be rabbits, George”?

President Aliyev also spoke proudly of how the holding of the European Olympic Games in Baku is a vote of confidence in Azerbaijan by the international community which, according to the President himself, has invested $180 billion in the country in the last 11 years. So what's not to like with this clear focus on peace, prosperity and economic development. However, while this narrative may play well  in the international financial journals which focus on the politics of the bottom line, many people inside the country would like to know where exactly this money went, and what it was used for.

But, in Azerbaijan, you ask those questions at your peril. Over the past several years, Azerbaijan has become increasingly authoritarian, as the government has used tactics such as harassment, intimidation, blackmail, attack and imprisonment to silence the regime's critics, whether journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, political activists, or ordinary people taking to the streets in protest. The government response has been to describe the protestors as “Anti national forces and traitors”.  Now most prominent human rights defenders are either in jail or in exile.

The sad reality is that the media focus on the games is almost an irrelevance as the real game is being played elsewhere.  The government's sophisticated public relations campaign has been very effective. On the one hand it has highlighted investment opportunities for multinational companies in the gas and petrol industry while painting human rights defenders, who ask searching questions, as anti patriotic enemies of the state funded by international organisations, in pursuit of a sinister anti-Azeri agenda. In tandem with this, Azerbaijan has carefully cultivated a key strategic relationship with the EU and Israel and, as a NATO ally, has played a significant regional role in the US's war on terror. As Europe seeks to reduce its dependency on Russian gas, and as both the EU and the United States seek to contain Russian political aggression they need the support of Azerbaijan. So as Europe debates the need for stronger sanctions on Russia you needn't expect sanctions on Azerbaijan any time soon.

You might reasonably expect that when a government is so clearly corrupt and repressive, when it jails and tortures those who speak out for justice, truth and human rights that no government would want to be associated with it. Instead governments and corporations line up to take part in sports extravaganzas while the government of Azerbaijan greedily exploits every opportunity to create a facade of prosperity and well being. The irony is that instead of addressing the legitimate concerns about government transparency and accountability the government has used similar charges of illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion to target those human rights defenders brave enough to ask challenging questions.

One of those campaigners was Rasul Jafarov who in the run up to the 2012 Song Contest organised the Sing for Democracy campaign which encouraged Eurovision participants to use their voice to speak out about the escalating level of human rights abuse in the country. The result was a wave of publicity which exposed, more than ever before, the brutal reality of the authoritarian regime of President Ilham Aliyev. In August 2014 Rasul was arrested on charges of illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion and abuse of office. As Rasul said when the government began its relentless retaliation against those who had exposed human rights abuses in the country,  "We knew the campaign wouldn't solve all of our problems. We knew there would be retaliation, and it has happened”.

Since then, the authorities have frozen the bank accounts of many independent organisations and, in some cases, of their staff members, while numerous others have been interrogated and intimidated, forcing them to suspend operations. In addition, several international civil society organisations [CSOs] operating in Azerbaijan, with longstanding partnerships with local CSOs in the country, have been forced to leave Azerbaijan. On 3 February 2015, President Ilham Aliyev approved amendments to the law on Media and Mass Information permitting Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Justice to petition the court requesting closure of any media outlet that receives foreign funding.

On 16 April 2015 the court upheld the conviction of Rasul Jafarov and sentenced him to 6.5 years in prison on what are universally recognised, except in Baku, as politically motivated charges. And he is not the only one. Prominent human rights defenders Intigam Aliyev, Khadija Ismayilova and Leyla Yunus have all been jailed, while Emin Huseynov has had to take refuge in the Swiss Embassy. Others have left the country to avoid arrest.

The companies and participants will of course say that sport is above politics and human rights concerns but the sad reality is that money, or more accurately gas, trumps all other concerns.

As one local journalist said during a recent meeting: “first, the family (of President Aliyev) took control of politics, then they monopolised the economy. Now, they are trying to take the control of civil society that is trying to resist”. In 2013, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a Sarajevo and Bucharest-based NGO that conducts investigative reporting projects, named Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev as corruption's “person of the year. The Baku Games are just the public expression of the convergence of the strategic interests of power, money, regional brinkmanship and access to natural resources.

Future prospects for  human rights in Azerbaijan? – Sold! to the gentleman at the back of the room with the deep pockets and the key to the pipeline. 

Mary Lawlor is Executive Director of Front Line Defenders, the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, based in Dublin.

Rasul Jafarov is one of the 5 finalists for the 2015 Front Line Defenders Award, selected from nominations received from 31 countries. The Front Line Defenders Award is presented annually to one human rights defender who has made an outstanding contribution to the cause of human rights.

Author: Mary Lawlor, Executive Director of Front Line Defenders;

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