Azerbaijan has the highest number of imprisoned journalists among all of the 56 member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In the most recent cases, five journalists were convicted of defamation and two sentenced to prison in October, while earlier this month two bloggers -- Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada -- were sentenced to up to 2 1/2 years in prison on hooliganism charges
In reaction to the latest incidents, 34 members of the nongovernmental organization Human Rights House Network, based in Oslo, sent a letter of concern
to the authorities in Baku, condemning the deterioration of freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. The letter calls on authorities to "take adequate measures to protect the democratic values and especially the right to freedom of expression" in Azerbaijan.
RFE/RL correspondent Anna Zamejc spoke with Ane Tusvik Bonde, regional manager for Eastern Europe and the Caucasus at the Human Rights House Foundation about the situation in Azerbaijan.RFE/RL: A few days ago you issued a statement saying that freedom of the media in Azerbaijan is deteriorating. Are you going to change anything in your strategy toward Baku?
Our strategy is to have institutions, to be there, defend the journalists and human rights defenders. That’s why we established our Human Rights House in Baku. This could be a meeting place for them. It is very difficult to have a press conference in a hotel in Azerbaijan. Also, the case of Adnan and Emin shows that it is not safe anymore to sit in a café and discuss things in Azerbaijan if you are active and critical toward the authorities.
But yes, in a way, we have [already] changed our strategy a little bit. We are also working on the regional level under the South Caucasus network of human rights defenders. It consists of organizations from Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. It is also important for Azerbaijan to get solidarity from the neighboring countries. So that’s part of what we are doing -- strengthening the connections between human rights defenders in the region. RFE/RL: Apart from meetings, do you plan any other actions or campaigns regarding Azerbaijan?
We have some rallies [planned] for Adnan and Emin in Georgia. But we would also like to do more training for human rights defenders, to make them more able to raise the concerns and apply, for instance, to the UN. Then, we will also train lawyers in Azerbaijan through a program called the International Law Advocacy, as we see that there are very few lawyers who are able to take these high-profile cases. We need more lawyers who know the system and know how to apply international standards to it.
We will also try to get the Rafto Foundation and Norwegian Helsinki Committee to focus more on the responsibility of [international] companies [working in Azerbaijan] -- like, for instance, Statoil, the Norwegian oil company. RFE/RL: Do you think that some long-term cooperation could emerge between your network and Statoil?
We had a meeting before with Statoil to inform them about the human rights situation in Azerbaijan. I think it’s important that they should cooperate not only with us but also with national organizations and give them support for their activities. I know that they support many initiatives -- like Transparency International, for instance -- but they could do more.
The next time we are going to Azerbaijan, I hope we will meet them and discuss such cooperation. It’s not only a question of economic support; it’s also about the exchange of information so that they know what is going on and what we are doing. RFE/RL: Statoil expressed its concerns about the bloggers case. But on the other hand, is it the job of oil companies to care about human rights issues?
I think it is really good that they’re doing that because it also affects, in a way, Statoil’s work in Azerbaijan that the freedom of speech and access to information are restricted. They rely on transparency in their work. If there is no way to criticize and get access to information, it will be also a problem for them -- for example, when it comes to corruption.
We also think that they should support more, or have advertisements in, independent media, not only in the governmental media. This is a way to support civil society. RFE/RL: In the meantime, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs accuses the Norwegian and German embassies of interfering in Baku’s internal affairs.
I think it's very good that the Norwegian and German embassies raised this question. They are not interfering. It’s a question of a fair trial. Azerbaijan has international obligations and is not following them. This is not an internal issue; it is actually an international issue. It also relates to the membership [of Azerbaijan] in the Council of Europe and United Nations. RFE/RL: Were you surprised by the strong reaction of the Azeri government to the critical statements the authorities received from both Norway and Germany?
I think it is just unnecessary to have this reaction. It is sad that the Azerbaijani government is not open to such criticism. This is how the society should function. The international community should criticize governments when they are violating human rights. RFE/RL: Many critics say that the Council of Europe should be more active in defending its mission and standing up to principles. Do you agree?
The parliament in the Council of Europe should be more active. As [Rafto Prize-winner and journalist for RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service] Malahat Nasibova
mentioned in the Norwegian parliament, the parliament had not discussed or raised any concerns about Azerbaijan for the last two years. And they admitted that it’s true.
Our job is to lobby the Norwegian parliamentarians and others to raise these issues and also to lobby...so that they [will] really pay more attention to what is going on in Azerbaijan. So concerning the Council of Europe, they could do more [and] our obligation is to pressure them. We will also use the opportunity now we have with a new secretary-general, Thorbjorn Jagland
, who is Norwegian. We will ask him to pay a special attention to the situation in Azerbaijan.