Politics 11:34 20/08/2016 Region

International human rights defenders stand up for Azerbaijani oppositionists “hunted down” by authorities ahead of referendum

The United States is troubled by the arrest of Azerbaijani opposition Republican Alternative (REAL) Movement Executive Secretary Natig Jafarli and other activists, the US Department of State press release reads. 

“We urge the Azerbaijani government to release these and other activists incarcerated in connection with exercising their fundamental freedoms, to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens,” the statement reads.

In addition to this, the US urges the Azerbaijani government to allow an open and public dialogue about the direction of the country, particularly in the run-up to the planned September 26 constitutional amendment referendum.

“We also urge the government to submit the constitutional amendments for a joint Venice Commission and ODIHR Opinion,” the press release highlights.

Human rights organization Amnesty International also released a statement regarding the arrests of activists in Azerbaijan. The human rights organization called on the Azerbaijani authorities to drop all charges against Elshan Gasimov, Natig Jafarli and Togrul Ismail and immediately and unconditionally release them. 

In its turn, the Caucasian Knot reports that the public alliance Azerbaijan Without Political Prisoners also called on the Azerbaijani authorities to release all the oppositionists arrested in recent days.

The website informs that on August 16, REAL movement activists Elshan Hasimov and Torgul Ismail were found guilty by Baku court’s decision of refusing to obey the police. According to lawyer Elshin Sadigov, the activists were incriminated in illegal dissemination of posters under the slogan “Say no to constitutional amendments!”

Azer Hasimli, a REAL board member, believes that the activists are persecuted on political motives. He highlighted that the activists are representatives of REAL initiative group for the constitutional amendments referendum which they consider anti-democratic.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijani news agency Turan reports that the police persecutes activists of Musavat party in Gazakh. Its aim is to prevent the collection of signatures against the registration of the Republic agitation campaign directed against the referendum. Besides, several people, who were collecting signatures, have disappeared over the past week, and there is no information about them.

The crackdown on civil society and opposition in Azerbaijan is in direct relation to the upcoming constitutional amendments referendum, international organization Human Rights House reported.

It is reminded in the statement that several Azerbaijani activists, including Natig Jafarli, Elshan Gasimov, Togrul Ismayil, and Elgiz Qahreman have been arrested in the run up to a national referendum on expanding presidential powers.

The rights group highlights that everyone should be allowed to freely and safely express their opinion during a campaign before the September 26 referendum. “Instead, we fear that we are now seeing the beginning of a new wave in the crackdown on civil society and opposition in direct relation to the referendum,” commented Ane Bonde, HRHF’s Regional Manager, Eastern Europe and Caucasus.

In addition, the statement of the organization emphasizes that the arrests of the activists come after a recent visit to Azerbaijan from the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. In a statement issued by the group they stated that they “hold the view that human rights defenders, journalists, political and religious leaders continue to be detained under criminal or administrative charges as a way to impair the exercise of their basic human rights and fundamental freedoms and to silence them.”

According to the Human Rights House, the Azerbaijani Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) declares that the arrest of Natig Jafarli is politically motivated and is an attempt to silence independent voices ahead of the referendum.

Therefore, the human rights organization calls for the authorities in Azerbaijan to cease intimidating opposition and dissent during the referendum period. “Additionally, we encourage the Council of Europe to hold Azerbaijan to its standards by guaranteeing the right to participate in public life during the referendum period, including the rights to freedom of expression and assembly,” the statement highlights.

Azerbaijani news agency Turan informs that on its Twitter page, the US Helsinki Commission expressed its concern over the latest arrests in Azerbaijan.

APA news agency reports that in its turn, the British government expressed concern over the arrest of REAL executive secretary, Natig Jafarli, and other oppositionists. 

Meanwhile, citing a statement of the opposition party Musavat, Turan reports that the party’s initiative group Republic has almost finished the campaign of collecting signatures of electors for the registration of the agitation group for the referendum.

It is noted that the authorities created difficulties for the collectors of the signatures. They particularly put pressure on collectors and their relatives, and seized the signature lists. They also put pressure on people who signed in favor of Republic. However, with the support of NiDa and D-18 movements’ activists, the initiative group managed to collect the necessary amount of electors’ signatures (40 thousand).

In its statement, the party strongly condemns the authorities’ pressure on the representatives of the initiative group. The party also called on the Central Election Commission to put an end to such arbitrariness.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijani expert on media freedom, Arzu Geybullayeva, writes for Index on Censorship that since independence, Azerbaijan’s journalists have been mistreated, while independent and opposition newspapers faced constant libel charges and other harassment from local law enforcement or criminal elements. 

According to the expert, journalists and outlets that support government policies are left alone to fill their pages with praise, while those who take a more critical approach are punished. “Official court documents detail how journalists have been sent to prison on trumped-up charges of hooliganism, extortion, trafficking, and instigating mass protests and violence,” Geybullayeva writes.

In practice, however, targeted journalists reported on official corruption, criticized extravagant government spending or documented illegal evictions. The expert highlights that the government continues to “hunt down" journalists, activists and human rights defenders. Periodic waves of arrests have created a sense of fear that has suffocated the country’s journalists.

Source Panorama.am
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