Alarming Deterioration in the Human Rights Landscape in Azerbaijan

The human rights situation continues to deteriorate in Azerbaijan in the aftermath of the European Games. On 8 August, the journalist Rasim Aliyev was brutally attacked and severely beaten by a group of people. He subsequently died on 9 August in a Baku hospital while human rights defenders Leyla and Arif Yunus were handed down lengthy prison sentences yesterday on politically motivated charges.

Azerbaijani authorities have launched an investigation into the attack of Rasim and detained at least one individual so far. Officials are connecting the attack to a Facebook post from 3 August in which he had criticised a football player.

However, Rasim had reported receiving continuous threats and intimidation via social media networks for three weeks leading up to his death and before the specific Facebook post. His murder arises in a human rights landscape where freedom of speech is non-existent and where attacks against journalists are met with widespread impunity.

He was a board member and employee of Azerbaijan’s leading media freedom organisation, the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) and was elected as the organisation’s chairman in October 2014. Rasim had been subjected to several incidents of harassment while working for the IRFS, including an incident where he was beaten up by the police. The incident was captured on camera.

The Trials of Arif Yunus and Leyla Yunus

Civil Rights Defenders have learned that Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif Yunus have been handed down prison sentences of 8 years and 3 months and 7 years respectively by The Court of Grave Crimes in Baku.

In addition to the prison sentences, the Court has requested confiscation of their property and all bank accounts. All property is to be transferred to the State.

Both have been held in pre trial detention for over a year on politically motivated charges and on August 13th were sentenced on the following charges; fraud, illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion

Leyla is a longstanding human rights defender and the Director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, an organisation heavily involved in promoting rule of law and also the sensitive issue of conflict resolution between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Arif is an independent activist and scholar who heads the Conflict Studies Department at the Institute of Peace and Democracy.

Trials of Intigam Aliyev, Rasul Jafarov and Khadija Ismayilova

At the end of July the appeal hearings in the cases of Intigam Aliyev and Rasul Jafarov took place, reinforcing the international held belief that the authorities in Azerbaijan are using the judicial system to silence human rights defenders who speak out against human rights violations.

Both were arrested in August 2014 and were subsequently sentenced in April 2015 receiving prison terms of 7.5 and 6.3 years respectively on politically motivated charges of abuse of office, tax evasion and illegal entrepreneurship. International monitors have either had limited access to both trials or have been prohibited from entering the courts making it incredibly difficult to follow proceedings.

In July, Intigam’s appeal was quashed while Rasul’s sentence was decreased by 3 months to 6.3 years on the 31st July before the Baku Court of Appeal

The trial of investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova’s continued on August 07th after a preliminary hearing held at the end of July. She has reported extensively on the financial dealings of President Ilham Aliyev and members of his family, and has been held pre-trial detention facility since her arrest in December 2014.

Khadiya was initially charged with inciting a former colleague, Tural Mustafayev, to attempt suicide with subsequent charges of embezzlement, tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship and abuse of official duties being added later. However, Mustafayev later withdrew the charges and confirmed that Khadiya had nothing to do with his suicide attempt.

Journalists attempting to cover the case and diplomats have been denied access as they attempt to monitor the trials and in the case of Khadija her relatives have been denied all contact with her.

On August 12th as the trial continued Khadiya refused to testify on the basis that a witness did not take part in the hearing.

“Human rights defenders are being made scapegoats by the Azerbaijani authorities for carrying out their legitimate human rights work. The trials of the imprisoned human rights defenders are clearly politically motivated while breaching fundamental fair trial principles. The international community must maintain pressure on the authorities until all human rights defenders are released from prison and the authorities start to provide for adequate conditions for human rights work,” said Marie Månson,Human Rights Defenders at Risk Programme Director, Civil Rights Defenders.