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Rights Groups Slam Azerbaijan Over Freedom Of Speech

On October 20, police rounded up dozens of protesters at an unsanctioned rally in central Baku, roughed them up, and forced them into police cars and buses, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
An official of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has come to Baku to deliver scathing criticism of Azerbaijan’s poor record on freedom of speech.

The condemnation came as Baku this week is hosting the United Nations-sponsored Internet Governance Forum, an international meeting to discuss public-sphere Internet policies.

In Baku on November 7, Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, called the crackdown by Azerbaijani authorities on journalists, rights supporters, and protesters an “embarrassing trend” for the oil-rich Caucasian nation.

Mijatovic said she met with President Ilham Aliyev and other top Azerbaijani leders. The OSCE representative called for reforms, including decriminalizing alleged defamation to a civil offense.

"I met the highest officials of this country, including [Azerbaijan's] President [Ilham] Aliyev in order to discuss the problems related to my mandate but also to ask for changes in the law -- or to say the laws -- that are actually creating problems in Azerbaijan related to freedom of speech," Mijatovic said. "If the laws are changed, if defamation is decriminalized and many other reforms are done together with the help of international organizations, I think this embarrassing trend can be stopped in Azerbaijan."

Dunja Mijatovic
Dunja Mijatovic
She suggested that abuses of freedom of speech had become routine in Azerbaijan and said she had raised the issue with Azerbaijani authorities.

"I don't think there is a need for me to repeat that all the cases that happened in Azerbaijan in relation to free speech, particularly related to the safety of journalists, and bloggers, and media activists," she said. "We raised all of them and continue to raise this with the authorities [of Azerbaijan]."

Human Rights Watch has called on Azerbaijani authorities to mark its hosting of the Internet forum by releasing at least eight imprisoned journalists and three human rights defenders.

In its report, the U.S.-based rights watchdog said freedom of expression is “severely limited” in Azerbaijan.

The report describes what it calls “Azerbaijan’s record of imprisoning journalists, human rights defenders, and political opposition activists, in most cases on bogus criminal charges, in apparent retaliation for their investigative journalism or political activism.”

It says authorities have “failed to hold accountable the people responsible for assaults and other attacks and harassment against journalists.”

RFE/RL journalist Khadija Ismayilova in October was awarded a Courage in Journalism prize by the International Women’s Media Foundation for her continued reporting on corruption and malfeasance in Azerbaijan’s government, despite becoming the target of a smear campaign that sought to humiliate and silence her.

The Human Rights Watch report says that since early 2006, Azerbaijani authorities have not authorized a single opposition protest in the center of Baku, instead forcing all demonstrations into designated zones on the outskirts of the capital.

It says such a blanket ban on assembly in central Baku runs counter to Azerbaijan’s international obligations to respect freedom of assembly and expression.

The report says that as recently as October 20, police rounded up dozens of protesters at an unsanctioned rally in central Baku, roughing them up, and forcing them into police cars and buses. It says at least 13 were sentenced to up to 10 days of detention on misdemeanor charges.

On November 2, the Azerbaijani Parliament adopted amendments to the law on public gatherings to significantly increase fines – to up to $10,000 -- for organizing or participating in illegal demonstrations.

With reporting by Reuters
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