A United Nations human rights expert says that Azerbaijan's civil society has been "paralyzed" by the government and, in the past two to three years, has faced "the worst situation" since the country's independence in 1991.
Michel Forst, the UN's special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said on September 22 that Azerbaijani authorities have applied crippling pressure to journalists and rights activists critical of the government, and made it virtually impossible for nongovernmental organizations to operate.
"Civil society has been paralyzed as a result of such intense pressure," Forst said in a statement as he wrapped up a nine-day visit to the oil-rich South Caucasus nation to assess the situation faced by rights advocates there.
"Human rights defenders have been accused by public officials to be a fifth column of the Western governments, or foreign agents, which has led to misperception in the population of the truly valuable role played by civil society," Forst added.
Western officials and right advocates in recent years have criticized a broad crackdown on dissenting voices under President Ilham Aliyev's government, including the jailing of journalists and activists who say they were targeted for their criticism of authorities.
Those jailed include RFE/RL journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who spent 17 months in prison before her release in May in a case widely seen as linked to her investigations of the Aliyev family's secretive wealth.
Aliyev's aide for public and political affairs, Ali Hasanov, rejected Forst's assessment, telling the APA news agency that it was "biased" and did not take into account "the Azerbaijani government's stance."
Forst's report came just days ahead of a September 26 referendum on changes to Azerbaijan's constitution that critics say will tighten Aliyev's grip on power, which he has held since 2003 after inheriting the presidency from his father, Heydar.
Council of Europe experts said on September 20 that the proposed changes would severely upset the balance of power and give "unprecedented" control to the president.
The head of the legal department in Aliyev's administration called that assessment "hasty" and "politically driven."