BAKU -- As the European Union and Azerbaijan are discussing closer ties, Human Rights Watch (HRW) is urging the bloc to press the South Caucasus country’s leadership to “genuinely” start respecting rights.
The New York-based watchdog issued the call on March 3, ahead of the annual EU-Azerbaijan consultation on human rights to be held in Brussels this week.
The talks will follow the February 9 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan, which were marred by widespread reports of violations.
Leading opposition figures were barred from running. And days after the vote, police in Baku detained dozens of activists, as well as opposition and independent candidates, ahead and during protests against the election results.
The ruling Yeni Azerbaijan (New Azerbaijan) party won 72 out of 125 seats in parliament, according to election authorities. Nearly all other seats went to small parties and independents loyal to President Ilham Aliyev, who has ruled the country since shortly before his father's death 17 years ago.
In a statement, Philippe Dam, advocacy director at HRW’s Europe and Central Asia Division, said Azerbaijani laws are “among the most restrictive in the region and make it almost impossible for independent groups to receive foreign funding -- even from EU sources -- to carry out their work.”
Azerbaijan also “stifles critical media, blocks prominent independent websites, and interferes with the work of independent lawyers by initiating disciplinary sanctions or disbarring them,” Dam said.
The release a year ago of some 50 “unjustly detained activists may have led some people to believe that Azerbaijan’s government was ready for reform. But this wasn’t the case: dozens of journalists and members of the political opposition remain jailed on politically motivated charges,” he said.
Others, like investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova, continue to face “arbitrary and disproportionate” travel bans.
The release of several political detainees last year shows that “pressure can work,” according to Dam.
He said Azerbaijani authorities should start by “releasing unjustly and arbitrarily detained critics, lifting travel bans, and letting independent groups operate freely,” adding: “That’s the message that many Azerbaijanis want to hear from the EU.”