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HRW Calls For Pressure On Azerbaijan To Release Critics

Arif (left) and Leyla Yunus are among the dozens of human rights defenders, political and civil activists, journalists, and bloggers arrested or imprisoned in the last year.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is urging the international community to press Azerbaijan to "release the critics it has thrown behind bars and end its crackdown" as it prepares to host a major sporting event.

HRW released a video on April 20 that shows prominent activists and journalists who have been detained in the months leading up to the first-ever European Games, which will bring more than 6,000 athletes to Baku from June 12-28.

"European leaders should make clear they will not be sending high-level delegations to the opening ceremonies unless people jailed for criticizing the government are freed and the government's crackdown on independent groups and activists ends," it said.

HRW said earlier in April that President Ilham Aliyev's government had used a range of bogus criminal charges in the last year to arrest or imprison at least 35 human rights defenders, political and civil activists, journalists, and bloggers.

Among those rights groups say are jailed for political reasons are activist Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif; Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor; human rights lawyer Intiqam Aliyev; and youth activist Rasul Cafarov.

HRW's video, Azerbaijan Locks Up Critics Ahead of European Games:

In a statement on April 20, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, said that the "case of Leyla and Arif Yunus illustrates the pattern of repression that has emerged in Azerbaijan."

He said that "human rights defenders are harassed through restrictive NGO legislation and selectively targeted with criminal prosecutions on charges that defy credibility."

"The situation of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan is of great concern," Muiznieks added.

"Reprisals, including judicial harassment, against critical voices in general, and those denouncing human rights violations in the country in particular, is a widespread phenomenon in Azerbaijan," he concluded.

Several Western countries and rights groups have called for the European Games as well as a Formula One auto race planned for next year not to be held in Azerbaijan because of its widely criticized human rights records,

Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, however, said on April 19 that the Azerbaijani Grand Prix was on track to take place as scheduled.

He said that there "doesn't seem to be any big problem" in Azerbaijan.

The United States said last month that releasing jailed activists and journalists would demonstrate adherence to Azerbaijan's "commitments to uphold the fundamental freedoms of all its citizens."

A report by HRW said that in 2014 the Azerbaijani government "escalated repression against its critics, marking a dramatic deterioration in its already poor rights record."

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