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An Azeri law enforcement officer checks a resident's permission to leave home received in a text message, after the authorities imposed restrictions on movement to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease in Baku.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is accusing Azerbaijani authorities of "abusing" restrictions imposed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus to arrest government critics.

In less than a month, at least six opposition activists and a pro-opposition journalist were sentenced to detention of up to 30 days on "spurious charges" that included breaking lockdown rules or disobeying police orders, the New York-based watchdog said in a statement on April 16.

Most of them had criticized conditions in government-run quarantine centers or authorities' failure to provide adequate compensation to people struggling financially from the consequences of the pandemic, it said.

The arrests "fall squarely within a long-standing pattern of political retaliation in Azerbaijan," said Giorgi Gogia, associate director for Europe and Central Asia at HRW.

He urged the authorities to "stop using a public-health emergency as a pretext to punish legitimate speech."

Azerbaijan has recorded 1,283 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 15 deaths.

The government has put in place a series of social-distancing measures to combat the outbreak, including a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people.

Last month, parliament passed legal amendments providing for fines of up to 200 manats ($120) or detention of up to 30 days for violating the lockdown regime.

In March, 154 people were jailed and thousands were fined for violating the restrictions, according to the Interior Ministry.

HRW said that arresting people for violating COVID-19 emergency measures may actually increase disease transmission by placing them in crowded detention facilities.

Critics of President Ilham Aliyev say authorities of the energy-rich South Caucasus state frequently seek to silence dissent by jailing opposition activists, reporters, human rights defenders, and civil society advocates without grounds.

During mass anti-government rallies in Almaty last March, several unknown people aggressively covered RFE/RL cameras with newspapers and began physically and verbally abusing them. (file photo)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- A Kazakh court has ruled that an investigation should continue into the failure of police to act against individuals who attacked RFE/RL reporters and hindered their professional activities.

The Almaty City Investigation Court on April 15 agreed with a lawsuit filed by Aiman Omarova, a lawyer for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, against police and asking for a deeper investigation of the incident.

During mass anti-government rallies in Almaty in March 2019, several unknown people aggressively covered RFE/RL cameras with newspapers and began physically and verbally abusing them.

RFE/RL correspondents in Almaty filed an official request with local police, asking them to identify the attackers and bring them to justice.

Omarova subsequently filed a lawsuit against police, accusing them of inaction when the case failed to develop.

Tamara Kaleyeva, chairwoman of the Adil Soz (A Just Word) group, which defends journalists' rights, told RFE/RL on April 15 that reporters in Kazakhstan rarely file lawsuits against police in such cases because "they almost never reach the courts."

"Unfortunately, journalists' rights, and the right of our citizens to obtain information, are not honored by our law enforcement bodies," Kaleyeva said.

Kazakhstan ranked 158th out of 179 countries in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index published by the rights group Reporters Without Borders.

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About This Blog

"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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