HRW Azerbaijan 2020 report: pandemic used as pretext for reprisal against opposition
The Human Rights Watch report for 2020 points out a number of issues Azerbaijan needs to address, including arbitrary repression against the opposition, massive violations of the proper conduct of elections, disregard for the right to freedom of assembly, as well as other violations of human rights.
Second Karabakh war
On September 27, Azerbaijan launched a military offensive that escalated hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia and the de-facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh. Tens of thousands of people fled Nagorno Karabakh in response to the fighting.
The warring parties committed violations of international humanitarian law (See the Armenia chapter for violations by Armenian forces), that unlawfully harmed civilians.
During the fighting, Azerbaijani forces launched large air-dropped munitions and fired rockets that lacked the capacity to be targeted with precision, into populated areas. Attacks on dual purpose infrastructure such as power stations may have caused excessive harm to the civilian population and in addition to striking military targets, some attacks damaged schools, private residences and businesses, and hospitals, and interrupted regular supply of services such as power, gas, and water to civilians.
Azerbaijan’s military also used banned cluster munitions in populated areas, resulting in civilian casualties. Cluster munitions have been banned because of their widespread indiscriminate effect and long-lasting danger to civilians.
In a serious violation of humanitarian law, Azerbaijani soldiers subjected Armenian prisoners of war to physical abuse and acts of humiliation, which were filmed and shared widely online.
Violation of human rights in Azerbaijan
In February 2020, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that Azerbaijan had illegally imprisoned investigative journalist Khadija Ismailova, from 2014 to 2016 to “silence and punish her”.
A month later, a Baku court unexpectedly ordered an early release of investigative journalist Afgan Mukhtarli and allowed him to reunite with his family abroad. Mukhtarli has served half of his six-year sentence on “politically motivated charges”, the report reads.
In August, Fuad Ahmadli, a blogger and senior activist of Azerbaijani Popular Front Party (APFP) was also released after serving a four-year prison sentence on similar, politically motivated charges.
According to the HRW report findings, there are at least three other journalists and bloggers who are imprisoned for criticising the government.
COVID-19 as a political weapon against the opposition
The HRW report said that in his speech, President Aliyev “implied that he would use measures introduced to slow the spread of coronavirus” to “crack down on political opponents”, whom he referred to as “traitors, enemies and a fifth column” in the country.
A few days after the speech, authorities arrested dozens of activists and bloggers. Most of them criticised the conditions of the state quarantine centers or the failure of the government to provide those affected by the outbreak of the pandemic with adequate financial compensation.
Courts sentenced most of the arrested persons to 10 to 30 days in prison on charges varying from the violation of the COVID-19 related lockdown rules to disobeying the police, yet, according to the report, no such incidents have occurred.
Persecution of the opposition
In March, authorities arrested Tofig Yagublu, a leading opposition politician of the Musavat party on the “bogus hooliganism charges”. He faced the trial in September and was sentenced to four years and three months in prison.
In September, a court ordered Yagublu to be kept under house arrest, after he needed hospitalization due to the health complications resulting from the hunger strike that he went on.
In mid-July, 2020, authorities arrested and filed criminal cases against 17 high-ranking APFP members for violation of public order, property destruction, and other offenses resulting from a July 14 pro-war protests related to Nagorno-Karabakh and neighboring Armenia. During the rally, a group of people briefly entered the parliament building, allegedly causing some minor damages.
Most of the 17 arrested APFP members did not participate in the rally.
Freedom of assembly
Azerbaijan is currently imposing a complete ban on protest actions in the central areas of Baku.
In February, police detained over a hundred opposition supporters, including parliamentary candidates, as they were about to protest alleged violations during the parliamentary elections. When the unauthorized protest was about to begin, police arrested several activists at their homes.
Police took most of the detainees to remote areas 200-300 km away from Baku and left them there.
The issue of political prisoners and election misconduct
In 2020, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a resolution in which the problem of political prisoners in Azerbaijan was recognized as “systemic in nature”, and in need of being solved “once and for all”.
PACE, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and other independent observers found that parliamentary elections held in February 2020 fell short of international standards for free and fair voting.