Human Rights Watch says the Azerbaijani government has been carrying out a "deliberate" strategy to "limit dissent" ahead of the Caspian Sea country's October 9 presidential election.
In a report
released on September 2, Human Rights Watch accuses the authorities of seeking to "curtail opposition political activity, limit public criticism of the government, and exercise greater control over nongovernmental organizations."
"It is a very comprehensive crackdown. And we are not talking about just numbers, we are talking about actual legislative framework, the qualitative changes for the work of the civil society in the country," Human Rights Watch senior South Caucasus researcher Giorgi Gogia said.
The report says the clampdown on freedom of expression, assembly, and association has accelerated as authorities prepare for the election that incumbent President Ilham Aliyev is widely expected to win.
The report says the authorities were responsible for a "dramatic deterioration" of freedom of expression, assembly, and association over the past 18 months.
It adds that the authorities have arrested dozens of political activists on "bogus charges," imprisoned critical journalists, and broken up peaceful public demonstrations.
"Seven members of [the youth opposition movement NIDA] are behind bars currently on various trumped-up charges. And it is striking that the youngest member of this group is 18 and the oldest is 28, and they are in prison on various trumped-up charges," Gogia said.
"When I say the trumped-up charges, we investigated these cases in great detail and there were numerous due-process violations."
Gogia also urged the international community to pressure Azerbaijan to live up to its commitments on human rights.
"As a partner to [the] European Union, as a member state to the Council of Europe, as a member state to the United Nations, Azerbaijan should be urged to protect those rights, should be urged to release the government critics who are currently detained on spurious charges -- whether it's a journalist, human rights defender, lawyer, or any other government critic."
With reporting by Reuters