A senior Council of Europe official has sharply criticized Azerbaijan's human rights record, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reports.
Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg wrote that "freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly have encountered serious setbacks in Azerbaijan. Urgent measures must be taken to uphold these fundamental human rights."
Hammarberg, a Swedish diplomat, said he regrets that most of the recommendations he made to Azerbaijani officials one year ago have not been implemented. In some cases, he said, steps taken by the authorities have run counter to Baku's human rights obligations.
"One of my recommendations was to end practices of unjustified or selective criminal prosecution of journalists or critical opinion makers," he said. "However, resorting to such methods has apparently not abated. Fabricated charges have been used to arrest and silence parliamentary candidates, journalists, and members of youth groups. Such intimidation is inconsistent with the principles of a democratic society founded on human rights principles and the rule of law. Measures should be taken to release immediately all persons imprisoned because of views or opinions expressed."
Hammarberg stressed in his report that an essential step for the protection of freedom of expression is to decriminalize defamation. He said he is also concerned by information indicating that in recent months several national and international NGOs have encountered difficulties in carrying out their activities in Azerbaijan.
Hammarberg said he is particularly worried about the recent demolition of a building in which several human rights organizations had their offices.
Another source of concern relates to the wave of arrests of activists and political opponents in connection with protests held in Baku in March and April.
Hammarberg said he urges Azerbaijani authorities to fully respect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in accordance with the case law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
The report also includes information provided by the Azerbaijani authorities which says the draft law on defamation is expected to be discussed by the parliament this month and to be adopted by the end of this year.
Azerbaijani officials also say not a single case on the imprisonment of journalists on defamation charges has been registered in Azerbaijan since the end of 2009.
They add that civil society organizations operate freely in Azerbaijan and the government does not create any obstacles to their activity and the registration of religious communities is rejected only if there are serious legal violations.
"As to the allegations of arrests of people for attending the rallies, it should be underlined that they have been arrested only for committing criminal acts [such as damaging public and private property, violent resistance to police]," Azerbaijani officials said.
Azerbaijani lawyer Fuad Agayev told RFE/RL that Hammarberg's report takes a softer line with regard to the most recent developments in Azerbaijan.
"He points to the demolition of a building housing human rights organizations, however this demolition covers not only one organization, it's a massive violation of property rights in Azerbaijan," Agayev said. "The property rights of thousands of citizens are being violated, those citizens are being treated inhumanely."
Agayev said the authorities present the same position with regard to ECHR decisions on Azerbaijan.
"The authorities don't lift a finger to investigate reports of inhumane treatment and torture, but state they are doing their utmost," he said. "The same holds true with regard to ensuring basic freedoms, including freedom of assembly and voting rights."