The Azerbaijani government has renewed its vicious crackdown on critics and independent groups, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today:
The 75-page report, “Harassed, Imprisoned, Exiled: Azerbaijan’s Continuing Crackdown on Government Critics, Lawyers, and Civil Society,” documents the government’s concerted efforts to undermine civil society. Human Rights Watch found that in 2016, the authorities used false, politically motivated criminal and administrative charges to prosecute political activists, journalists, and others. The government has built a restrictive legal and policy framework to paralyze the work of independent groups. Lawyers willing to defend critics have faced retaliation and disbarment. Although the authorities released several human rights defenders and others in early 2016, many others remain in prison or fled into exile.
“With the release of some wrongfully imprisoned activists earlier this year, there were high hopes that Azerbaijan was turning a corner,” said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “But optimism is fading fast as the government relentlessly pursues critics and tries to shut down independent groups.”
According to lists compiled by local activists, there are still more than 90 political prisoners behind bars in Azerbaijan, including journalists, youth activists, and members of Azerbaijan’s independent Muslim community. There are also numerous credible reports of prisoners being tortured while in state custody.
In April 2014, the General Prosecutor’s Office initiated criminal investigations against several major international donors, including the National Endowment for Democracy, the Open Society Foundations, Oxfam, the European Endowment for Democracy, and others operating in Azerbaijan on charges of abuse of power and service forgery, the HRW report adds:
In October the investigation expanded into the activities of dozens of individuals and NGOs who had received grants from these donors, leading to repeated interrogation of NGO leaders and staff, prosecutions of some NGO leaders, and seizure of their bank accounts. In the course of 2015 the authorities froze the bank accounts of over 29 NGOs and numerous NGO leaders’ accounts. The authorities also conducted extensive tax inspections into those NGOs, imposed travel bans on some individuals, and subjected some to intrusive physical checks at borders. The authorities suspended but did not close the investigations in early 2016.