New Series of Brutal Attacks on Freedom of Expression

Civil Rights Defenders condemns a new series of attacks on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. We are now witnessing even more ruthless methods of repressions such as abduction, forced return, and torture of regime critics.

In January, Mehman Huseynov, a prominent blogger and the chairman of the Baku-based Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), was arbitrarily detained in Baku by plain clothed policemen and allegedly tortured in custody. Following his release, Huseynov publicly reported on the incident, and accused the police of beating him in custody. Instead of probing the police, authorities filed criminal defamation charges against the journalist, and sentenced him in March to two years in jail.

Despite the international outcry in Huseynov’s case and demands to reverse the repressions, Azerbaijani authorities continued to carry out attacks on the press. According to reports in the media and statements by press freedom groups, in May alone Azerbaijan put three other reporters behind bars. One of them, independent reporter Afgan Mukhtarli, was assaulted and kidnapped in the broad daylight in Tbilisi, capital of neighbouring Georgia, and forcefully returned to Baku. Similar to Huseynov’s case, authorities did not investigate and prosecute the kidnappers but targeted the reporter whom they incarcerated after charging him on separate counts of illegal border crossing, an attempt to smuggle foreign currency, and alleged resistance to the police.

‘It is extremely disturbing that the Azerbaijani authorities embarked on such method as abduction of regime critics on the territory of a sovereign state’, says Joanna Kurosz, Eurasia Programme Director at Civil Rights Defenders. ‘This sends chilling signals to all the exiled activists who continue practicing their journalism and human rights work from outside Azerbaijan. Both Azerbaijan and Georgia are parties to the European Convention on Human Rights, and any involvement of state agents into the abduction and transfer of Mukhtarli to Azerbaijan is a grave violation of the Convention, and must be investigated as such.’

In two other incidents in May, the authorities imprisoned Aziz Orujov, head of the independent TV channel Kanal 13, and Nijat Amiraslanov, a freelance reporter and an activist with the embattled youth movement NIDA. Orujov was jailed on accusations of resisting the police; earlier this month authorities amended their initial charges to include accusations of illegal business activities and abuse of office.

According to news reports, Amiraslanov was imprisoned on May 22, after being accused of resisting the police. His lawyer told the media that the journalist might have been tortured in custody as he appeared at the June 3 court hearing with all of his front teeth missing, and had his hand paralyzed.

In another episode, on April 28, blogger and activist Mehman Galandarov died while in the custody in a detention center in Baku. Galandarov was arrested and ordered a pre-trial detention on dubious charges of drug trafficking. The Azerbaijani authorities claim that the blogger committed suicide.

Aside of the direct attacks on reporters, Azerbaijani government has escalated hacking campaign against dissent. In March major independent news outlets – Meydan TV, Azadliq Qezeti, and the Azerbaijani service of the Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – became inaccessible inside the country.

To further tighten its choking hold on the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression Azerbaijani authorities toughened their defamation laws: As of early June, one found guilty of insulting the honour and dignity of the president faces up to five years in jail and a higher fine.

Civil Rights Defenders urges that Azerbaijan complies with international obligations, including on freedom of expression, and immediately set free Mehman Huseynov, Aziz Orujov, Nijat Amiraslanov, Afgan Mukhtarly and all other imprisoned reporters and human rights activists. We demand the Azerbaijani authorities conducts a full, transparent, and independent investigation into the circumstances of Mehman Galandarov’s death. Civil Rights Defenders also calls on Azerbaijani authorities liberalise its legislation, and stop targeting and prosecuting journalists and activists in retaliation for their work.