As human rights defenders, we must report that our own situation in Azerbaijan has been deteriorating fast.
Two years ago, human rights groups across Europe worried that holding the Eurovision Song Contest in our country would only prop up Azerbaijan’s increasingly intolerant regime. Now their fears have been confirmed. Just in the past year, we have seen a cascading series of arrests of human rights defenders on trumped-up charges.
So imagine our dismay on hearing about Europe’s latest approach to our country: The Council of Europe itself is holding a conference this Saturday and Sunday in Baku, on how to implement the European Convention on Human Rights. Those attending reportedly will include Judge Dean Spielmann, the president of the European Court of Human Rights, the very institution that is supposed to be the bulwark of our cause in Europe.
It would be humorous were it not so tragic.
There is only one reason for the choice of venue: It’s Azerbaijan’s turn, according to its place in the alphabet, to hold the chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers. By all other measures, the decision makes no sense at all.
Many leaders of the already limited number of independent nongovernmental organizations here are now in prison, most of them on sham charges of “illegal entrepreneurship,” abuse of power, state treason and tax evasion.
Our European visitors probably won’t get to see the 58-year-old human rights defender (and founding director of the Peace and Democracy Institute in Baku) Leyla Yunus. She was arrested on July 30 on charges of treason and other counts her lawyers say are fraudulent. Or her husband, Arif Yunus, 59, who was arrested six days later. On Sept. 23, according to the lawyers, Ms. Yunus was beaten by a guard at the Kurdakhany detention center, where she is being held.
The Europeans probably won’t visit Intigam Aliyev, either; he is a lawyer and human rights defender who was detained and charged on Aug. 8. There are serious concerns about the health of both Ms. Yunus and Mr. Aliyev, and indications that neither is receiving the medical attention they require.
Nor will the Europeans meet Rasul Jafarov, a young pro-democracy activist arrested on Aug. 2. He was about to kick off a “Sports for Rights” campaign protesting plans to hold the first-ever European Games in Baku in 2015, an event that has support from the international corporations BP, P&G, Tissot and others.
Journalists have also been systematically targeted. Last month, a criminal case was opened against the investigative journalist and corruption fighter Khadija Ismayilova (no relationship to the co-author of this article), after she spoke in Strasbourg, France, at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. She is now at risk of joining almost a dozen other journalists and bloggers who are already in prison.
Then there is Anar Mammadli, the recipient of the Council of Europe’s Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize. Sadly, our friend, who was honored just last month for his work on monitoring elections and other democratic rights, is currently serving a five-and-a-half-year prison sentence, handed down in May.
All in all, Azerbaijan seems a particularly strange place to discuss the business of how better to implement human rights.
A string of recent European Court judgments has taken Azerbaijan to task for a long list of serious rights abuses, including police torture and brutality, detention of political opponents, imprisonment of journalists, interference in elections and refusal to register legitimate civil society groups.
Rather than uphold the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights, Azerbaijan has continued to use the law as a political club to silence critics. As in many countries whose economies run on oil revenues, Azerbaijan’s corrupt ruling elite has no interest in implementing the rule of law, which would lead to its inevitable fall from power.
In our view, it is a travesty that the Council of Europe is sponsoring a conference about human rights in Azerbaijan. The event will only be used cynically by the state-controlled media to add legitimacy to the current government, which tramples the rights that the Council of Europe seeks to defend.
And still, the diplomats and European judges are planning to come.
Gunay Ismayilova works with the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, and Samir Kazimli with the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center.