ECHR finds Azerbaijan guilty of unlawful refusal to provide access to public-interest information
For the first time, the European Court of Human Rights recognized the violation of the right to information in Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani government was once again ordered to pay compensation to the plaintiff. The victim was a journalist who tried to find out the results of the work of the state commission and assess harm caused to the local environment and population by a radar station.
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On December 9, 2021, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) announced its decisions on two cases from Azerbaijan. Thus, for the first time, the European Court recognized the violation of the right to receive information in Azerbaijan. The plaintiff in both cases was Azerbaijani journalist Rovshan Hajiyev (Hajibeyli).
Rovshan Hajiyev vs Azerbaijan
The editor of the Azadlig (Freedom) newspaper Rovshan Hajibeyli appealed to the European Court and filed a complaint about the violation of his rights to receive information from state structures. In his statement, the plaintiff noted that the state organizations did not provide him with information about the harm caused by the radar station located in the Gabala region of Azerbaijan to the environment.
The plaintiff appealed to the ECHR, based on the 10th (freedom of expression) and 6th (right to a fair trial) articles of the European Convention, and complained about the secrecy of information affecting the interests of society, as well as illegal court decisions. Applications to the European Court were filed in 2012 and 2013.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled that in both cases there is an infringement on the right to receive information, regulated by Article 10 of the convention, which guarantees freedom of expression.
According to the decision of the ECHR, the Azerbaijani government is obliged to pay the plaintiff a compensation in the amount of 1,500 euros [$ 1,695].
What information was hidden from the journalist?
The Gabala radar station (radar) had been operating on the territory of Azerbaijan since 1985 and belonged to the Soviet army. The radar had an early warning capability at a distance of 6,000 kilometers. After the collapse of the USSR, the station came under the control of Azerbaijan, but operated under the leadership of the Russian army on the basis of a lease agreement. In 2012, the station was closed and all of its property was taken to Russia.
In 2001 and 2003, the President of Azerbaijan ordered an assessment of the impact of the radar station on the environment and health of the local population. A corresponding Azerbaijani-Russian joint commission was established to examine the impact of the radar on the environment and public health. The Minister of Health of Azerbaijan was appointed chairman of the commission.
According to Rovshan Hajibeyli, as a result of an independent investigation of the impact of the radar on the health of the population in the Gabala region and neighboring regions of the country, serious problems were identified. In 2010, the plaintiff contacted the Ministry of Health to find out if the commission was still operational and asked for copies of reports on the radar’s environmental and health impact. The Ministry of Health responded to the appeal, but said that the report prepared by the commission was sent to the country’s cabinet of ministers.
After Hajibeyli was unable to obtain the requested documents, he filed an application with the local court. The journalist demanded a court decision, which would oblige the Ministry of Health to respond to the information request. The Nasimi District Court of Baku rejected the applicant’s claim and replied that the Ministry did not own the documents requested by him. Higher courts upheld this decision.
Hajibeyli also made a similar request to the Cabinet of Ministers of the country, but the Cabinet of Ministers did not answer his request at all.
Local courts also did not satisfy the journalist’s claim regarding an unanswered information request to the Cabinet of Ministers of Azerbaijan. The Cabinet of Ministers did not even send a representative to participate in the court hearings, Bulletin of the European Court reports .