The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says Azerbaijan's authorities have cleansed the political landscape of "virtually all formal avenues of expressing dissent" ahead of next week’s snap presidential election that is set to hand longtime President Ilham Aliyev a new term.
"When it comes to silencing critics, Azerbaijani authorities have been industrious and methodical," the New York-based media watchdog said in an April 6 statement.
CPJ said that "throwing journalists in jail, abducting them from abroad, accusing them of financial misdeeds, blocking websites, hacking social media accounts, [and] imposing travel bans" have been among the tactics used by Aliyev's government to try to ensure that "the independent media are muzzled and critical voices silenced."
Meanwhile, opposition candidates have been "either jailed or barred" from running in the April 11 presidential election, the nongovernmental organization (NGO) said.
Aliyev in February issued a decree bringing forward the date of the election initially set for October, without explaining the reasons for the decision. Azerbaijan's two main opposition parties have called for a boycott of the vote.
Aliyev has ruled the South Caucasus country of nearly 10 million people since shortly before his father's death in 2003. Azerbaijan's opposition, as well as Western governments and international human rights groups have criticized Aliyev's government for persistently persecuting independent media outlets, journalists, and opposition politicians and activists, something which Azerbaijani officials have denied.
Critical reporters face "daily restrictions" inside Azerbaijan, CPJ said on April 6, while authorities are also trying to silence those who chose to live and work from abroad to avoid arrest or harassment.
But the NGO said international pressure on Azerbaijani authorities “has had some impact.”
It quoted Mehman Aliyev, who heads the independent Turan News Agency, as saying he thinks that pressure from the United States over his arrest in August on charges of tax evasion and abuse of power played a key role in his release.
In November, Turan said that all charges against the agency and its director were dropped, and that Aliyev, who has no relation to the Azerbaijani president, was told that all restrictions previously placed on his movements were lifted.
In the meantime, U.S. lawmakers passed an amendment to the FY2018 State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill which instructed the department to bar the entry of Azerbaijani officials into the United States if they were involved in Aliyev’s imprisonment.
Speaking to CPJ from Baku, the journalist said Senator Richard Durbin's amendment as well as pressure from other U.S. senators, were "directly responsible" for his release.
"The amendment was passed on September 7. I had a court hearing the following day. When the authorities heard of the amendment, the security services told me President Aliyev had just heard about my case and was concerned," Aliyev said.
Alex Raufoglu, a Washington-based Azerbaijani journalist who contributes to Turan, urged the international community to step up pressure on Baku ahead of the presidential election.
"Once reelected for another seven-year term -- and I see no obstacles to that -- Aliyev will listen to his foreign partners even less," he told CPJ.
In December, the group found at least 10 journalists behind bars in Azerbaijan in relation to their work, making the country one of the worst jailers of journalists in the world.