Five prominent Azerbaijani human rights activists have appealed to Council of Europe Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland to ask the council’s Venice Commission of legal experts to assess the controversial amendments to the Azerbaijani Constitution that are to be put to a nationwide referendum on September 26.
Opposition parties have criticized the proposed changes as undemocratic and aimed at securing the rule in perpetuity of the family of incumbent President Ilham Aliyev.
Specifically, the changes would extend the presidential term from five to seven years and empower the incumbent president to appoint a first vice president and a vice president, and to dissolve parliament. They would also abolish the minimum age requirement (35) for potential presidential candidates and lower that for election to parliament from 25 to 18. Aliyev’s son Heydar is currently 19.
The five human rights activists are Intigam Aliyev, Rasul Jafarov, Anar Mamedli, and Leyla Yunus, all of whom have been jailed on apparently fabricated criminal charges in retaliation for their civic engagement and subsequently pardoned or released, and Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety head Emin Guseynov, who was forced to leave the country in 2015 and stripped of his Azerbaijani citizenship.
In their appeal to Jagland, they argue that “some of the proposed amendments contravene such fundamental principles of the Council of Europe as democracy, human rights, and the supremacy of the law.” Adopting these amendments, they continue, would serve only to destroy the balance between the various branches of power and strengthen an “undemocratic system” in which power is concentrated in the hands of the president.
The five also draw attention to the Azerbaijani authorities’ failure to inform the population of the rationale for or probable consequences of the amendments. “The current regime’s intolerance of criticism and the continuing restrictions on the media and on freedom of expression and assembly...render impossible a balanced evaluation of the proposed amendments and acquainting voters with them prior to holding the referendum,” they wrote.
Whether the council will accede to the activists’ request is questionable, however. The Azerbaijani news agency Turan quotes an unnamed Venice Commission representative as explaining that the commission may only deliver such an assessment if asked to do so by the national authorities.
Opposition parties, too, have deplored the authorities’ approach to ensuring passage of the amendments. They point out that they were not made available for broad public discussion before President Aliyev submitted them to the Constitutional Court, which approved them at a session that lasted just two hours. In a September 5 statement, the opposition Musavat party noted that the authorities have made no effort to inform the public about the proposed changes, which Musavat predicts will lead to a monarchical form of government. The Classic Azerbaijan Popular Front has called for a boycott of the referendum.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission has denied registration to an initiative group formed by Musavat that intended to campaign against the amendments. The rationale cited for that refusal was that more than 3,500 of the 41,000-plus signatures the party collected in support of registering the group were invalid.
A similar group formed by the movement Republican Alternative (Re Al) announced on August 23 the suspension of its lobbying against the proposed amendments in light of the arrest of the group’s leader, Natiq Cafarli, and two of its activists. Police also confiscated 100,000 Re Al campaign flyers.
The Central Election Commission has, however, registered no fewer than three analogous pro-government groups that will lobby in support of the amendments. It has also recruited 37,429 volunteers to observe the voting on September 26 and a further 846 to monitor the commission’s work on that day.
The scope for critical media coverage of the implications of the proposed constitutional changes and the referendum campaign has been further narrowed by the suspension as of September 6 of publication of the independent newspaper Azadlyq because of its debts to the state publishing house resulting from the withholding of some $42,000 by the state agency responsible for the distribution and sale of the paper. Founded in 1989, Azadlyq is close to the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party.
Azadlyq first deputy chief editor Rahim Gaciyev said the Azerbaijani leadership is “adamant” in its attempt to force the closure of one of the last surviving independent media outlets. The independent TV station ANS TV had its license revoked in July for allegedly expressing support for U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen at the time of the failed coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Ankara has blamed on Gulen.