The Council of Europe is widely described as Europe's top human rights body. But with Azerbaijan taking over the chairmanship of its decision-making body on May 14, rights advocates say the council's credibility is at stake.
"Azerbaijan's human rights record has been quite appalling for a number of years, and since the presidential elections in October last year it got even worse," Amnesty International's Denis Krivosheev says.
"People are put behind bars on false allegations for nothing [other] than trying to speak out against the government. We are very seriously concerned that this is happening at a time when Azerbaijan is about to become the chair of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe."
Krivosheev urged Baku to immediately release all political prisoners and called on the Council of Europe to "look very seriously" into abuses committed under the watch of Azerbaijan's longtime leader, Ilham Aliyev.
Created in the wake of World War II, the Council of Europe works to protect fundamental rights in its 47 member states. It also oversees the European Court of Human Rights, a key institution that has helped countless abuse victims seek redress against authorities in their country.
The chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers is automatic. It rotates every six months among the council's member states, in alphabetical order. Rights campaigners, however, say Azerbaijan's dire rights record stands at odds with the Council of Europe's core values.
'Blow To Legitimacy' Of Council Of Europe
The oil-rich former Soviet state has repeatedly come under fire for stifling dissent, jailing opponents, and obstructing democracy. Rights groups say detentions, trials, forced evictions, and torture have been on the rise since Aliyev's October 2013 reelection to a third presidential term in a vote opponents denounced as fraudulent.
"The climate for freedom of expression -- along with human rights more broadly -- has been steadily deteriorating for many years, as the Baku authorities worked to silence all forms of criticism and dissent," the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalism said in a May 12 statement. The group described Azerbaijan's chairmanship as "problematic" and urged the council to hold Azerbaijani authorities accountable "or risk facing a bigger blow to its legitimacy than perhaps ever before."
As many as 10 journalists are currently behind bars in Azerbaijan on charges widely seen as politically motivated. Another five bloggers are in prison.
Earlier this month, a court sentenced eight members of the youth organization NIDA to jail terms ranging between six and eight years in a verdict criticized as retribution for their political activities. The activists, detained last year after taking part in an antigovernment rally, were found guilty of organizing mass unrest and possessing illegal drugs and weapons.
The Institute for Peace and Democracy, a respected Azerbaijani rights group, says an estimated 130 people are currently jailed in the country for speaking out against Aliyev's rule.
The group's president, veteran rights campaigner Leyla Yunus, herself was detained along with her husband last month while preparing to board a flight to Qatar. They were released after 26 hours in custody, but their passports have been withheld and they are barred from leaving the country.
Authorities accused the couple, who have been trying to foster reconciliation between Azerbaijan and its bitter foe Armenia, of spying for Yerevan. Their detention came just weeks after prominent journalist Rauf Mirqadyrov, who worked with Yunus on the Armenian project, was arrested on similar charges of espionage.
For Yunus, 58, Azerbaijan's chairmanship at the Council of Europe brings the institution into irreparable disrepute. "It undermines the authority of this organization and tramples the ideal of democracy, humanism, and human rights on the basis of which the Council of Europe was created." she says. "Today, European politicians are more interested in Azerbaijan's oil and gas than in its democratic development."
Yunus says Azerbaijan has fulfilled only four of the 21 obligations it committed to when it joined the Council of Europe and signed the European Convention of Human Rights in 2001.
According to her institute's findings, between eight and 10 people continue to die every year in custody. "A country whose citizens live like slaves should never be permitted to lead an organization such as the Council of Europe," she says.