BRUSSELS -- The European Parliament has condemned a crackdown on opposition protests in Azerbaijan and expressed "deep concern" at the increased number of attacks on civil society, social network activists, and journalists in the country.
The criticism came in a resolution adopted by the chamber in Strasbourg today.
The document criticizes a series of moves made by the Azerbaijani government in recent months, including the arrests of up to 200 opposition protesters in March and April, the imprisonment of members of the opposition, and threats to close down nongovernmental organizations.
It also calls for the immediate release of a number of prominent opposition figures and a newspaper editor still held in jail in defiance of a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling.
"The government doesn't really want to respect human rights and is focusing on limiting people's fundamental rights and freedoms in a substantial and systematic way and we want to speak out against that," said Marietje Schaake, a member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands:
The cases of Cabbar Savalan and Baxtiyar Haciyev receive special mention in the document.
Youth activist Cabbar Savalan
Savalan, a member of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party's (APFP) youth group, was recently sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison on charges of drug possession. Haciyev, a former parliamentary candidate, was arrested after calling for demonstrations against the government via the social networking site Facebook and now faces two years in jail for allegedly dodging military service.
The European Parliament also calls for the immediate release of newspaper editor Eynulla Fatullayev following news that his health has deteriorated after being denied medical care in prison.
Fatullayev was jailed in 2007 on multiple charges, which he says were fabricated in retaliation for his published articles criticizing the authorities. In April 2010, the Strasbourg-based ECHR ruled that Fatullayev should be released as he had been denied a free trial, but he was later convicted him on drug charges.
Rashad Shirin, a founding member of the civil society group the Azerbaijan National Committee for European Integration, told RFE/RL that he is doubtful the resolution will contribute to greater media freedom in his country.
"Addressing in the resolution the situation with journalists would give some sort of moral support of the people, for those journalists, and also would put some pressure on the government of Azerbaijan," Shirin said, "but I don't know if that would in a longer term contribute to more media freedom in Azerbaijan. It's probably the reaction rather than the promotion of media freedom."
But Vugar Gojayev, a country coordinator for the Human Rights House in Azerbaijan, which was recently shut down by the Justice Ministry, told RFE/RL that the resolution comes at a sensitive time for the country and that this might have an effect on the government in Baku.
Jailed journalist Eynulla Fatullayev
"The previous practices in the country, from the government's side, have shown that the government doesn't care about any sort of international statement or any sort of resolutions," Gojayev said. "That is mainly because of the self-confidence from the government's side. But now, for the time being, there is a very sensitive period in the country.
"There is a very high belligerent rhetoric from the government's side against the international community because the government is thinking that the latest demonstrations in Baku have been sponsored or supported by international or foreign forces to create chaos in the country."
Schaake points out that a similar European Parliament resolution from December 2009 did have an impact in galvanizing young people and says she believes the document can have an impact.
"There was a strong response from the parliament in Azerbaijan, which was angry, upset, insulted with this resolution," Schaake said, "and proposed to have a parliamentary committee to come up with an answer to the European Parliament. The discussion really led to a nationwide discussion and the opposition did not want to take part in this committee to come up with a new answer against the European Parliament. I got...hundreds of e-mails from young people from Azerbaijan thanking me for taking that initiative, so it seems that it does absolutely resonate."