European Court Rulings Highlight Azerbaijan’s Bleak Record on Human Rights

The only chance Azerbaijan has to reverse its growing international isolation … is to free and clean the criminal records of all human rights defenders, journalists, and others imprisoned for their work.
Nils Muižnieks, European Human Rights Commissioner

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg is in principle rightly blind to external political considerations. But occasionally good timing (whether deliberate or unintentional) may serve to reinforce its efforts to defend the principles and values of the European Convention of Human Rights. For example, in the run-up to parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan on November 1 the court issued a group of judgments that highlighted the continuing erosion of basic political rights in that country, under its increasingly authoritarian president, Ilham Aliyev, now in his 12th year of office.

Two of the rulings were directly linked to the conduct of the last parliamentary elections in 2010. The applicants in Gahramanli and Others v. Azerbaijan, decided on October 8, were opposition candidates who had complained to the court of electoral abuses that included obstruction of election observers and ballot-box stuffing. In Annagi Hajibeyli v. Azerbaijan, decided on October 22, the applicant sought to register as an opposition candidate but was rejected because the electoral commission rejected over a third of the signatures he needed to get on the ballot.

In both cases, the court found that the right to free elections had been violated by government action, while the Gahramanli ruling concluded that “the conduct of the electoral commissions and courts—including the Constitutional Court ‒ in the present case, and their respective decisions, reveal an apparent lack of any genuine concern for combatting the alleged instances of electoral fraud and protecting the applicants’ right to stand for election.”

In a third case, Gafgaz Mammadov v. Azerbaijan, the court found on October 15 that the authorities “failed to act with due tolerance and good faith as regards the applicant’s right to freedom of assembly” in moving  to break up an opposition demonstration held in June 2011.

Since the events detailed in these complaints, the political situation in Azerbaijan has only worsened. A wave of arrests last year saw the detention of several prominent human rights defenders and journalists over the course of just a few weeks.

Those arrested included Hajibeyli’s lawyer, Intigam Aliyev, who was sentenced to seven and a half years’ imprisonment on bogus charges (Aliyev is in poor health and has himself complained to the ECHR over the inadequate medical care and harsh conditions he is experiencing in detention). This August, human rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus were given sentences of eight and a half years and seven years respectively (Arif was released on health grounds on November 12). In September, investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. Many more civil society activists have been harassed and imprisoned, while their organizations have faced closure by the authorities over trumped up technicalities.

Against this background, the latest ECHR rulings join a long list of judgments highlighting serious rights abuses in Azerbaijan. Taken together, they represent a fundamental challenge to the principles and values of the European Convention of Human Rights, which the government in Baku ratified when it joined the 47-member Council of Europe (CoE) in 2001.

Regrettably, the response of the Council of Europe so far has been inadequate. The Council’s human rights commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, has been forthright; at the end of October he denounced the parliamentary elections held on Sunday November 1 as “another fraudulent election in a land with few rights,” and called for the release of imprisoned human rights defenders. But at the same time the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE, which brings together parliamentarians from the CoE member states), went ahead with a plan to send a delegation to monitor the vote; this was despite the decision of  both the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Parliament not to send monitors, due to the restrictive conditions being imposed on their work.

Despite the evident suppression of opposition views over the previous months, and despite observing some incidents of ballot box stuffing, the PACE monitoring team concluded that the “voting process was observed to be adequate and generally in line with international standards.”

After this contradictory performance, it is incumbent on the CoE’s secretary general, Thorbjørn Jagland, to make sure that the council  sends a consistent message on Azerbaijan. 

At the very least Jagland might seek to ensure a coordinated response, by bringing together PACE, the human rights commissioner, and the Council of Ministers in a working group on Azerbaijan. Ultimately, he has the power to invoke, Article 52 of the European Convention gives the secretary general the authority to, in effect, demand an official response from Baku over its broad breaches of rights.

The CoE’s message, grounded in the European Convention and the decisions of the ECHR, should be simple, as spelt out already by its human rights commissioner: “The only chance Azerbaijan has to reverse its growing international isolation and show its commitment to democratic values is to free and clean the criminal records of all human rights defenders, journalists, and others imprisoned for their work or for opposing the establishment.”

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Why don't you write any article about violation of property rights of Azerbaijani people by Armenia in occupied Nagorno-Karabakh area of Azerbaijan? There was a European Court of Human Rights decision on Chiragov case. Property rights is not a human rights?

Dear Ramil, Thanks you for your comment. We don't work on the issue of property rights in Nagorno-Karabakh or anywhere else in the world, so we wouldn't write about that. We do support civil society groups and those who serve as defenders of the rights of individuals everywhere. Best wishes, Jonathan Birchall, Communications Officer, Open Society Justice Initiative

The European Court of Human Rights is better to consider cases of innocent Azerbaijani refugees against Armenia.

The current analyses of the decisions of the ECHR shows that Germany and other countries with a long history of democracy has a lot of problems in ensuring the human rights and liberties. So it is normal that young state of Azerbaijan still has the things to do.

That is true. But one of the big differences is that Germany does not lock up human rights defenders for seeking to apply the rule of law.

The main problem is that all of them are not in prison cause of they are "human rights'' activists but traitors and criminals that even didn't paid for bill.

I understand position of the Open society institute. Famous swindler is really so much worry about human rights?:-) its all about financial interest.

The Open Society Foundations is indeed the largest private supporter of human rights groups around the world. You can find more about our work, and George Soros' remarkable commitment to open society values elsewhere on this website. Thanks.

You say you don't work on the issue of property rights in Nagorno-Karabakh, but at the same time you note that you support the human right. The rights of the Azerbaijani IDPs that still today can not return to their native land because of armenian agression are also an issue of human rights, aren't they?

Dear Rashid, I imagine your concern over this issue must make you an active supporter of human rights defenders around the world who bravely speak out against governments to defend the rights of individuals! Thanks for your support!

That would be better not to publish the article under a biased approach. Otherwise you mislead the followers.

Thanks for your comment. Engagement, even if illogical, is always an important first step!

I appreciate all efforts of organizations for human rigths all over the world, including Open Society Group members. I think, it has to be position not only for people from different organizations, but human beeings in person. According the human rigths violation in My country, I think, it is a huge case to show people all over the world how it is hard to open minds of people who are blind, who are look for evidences not inside but outside, who are not brave enough to see realities and take actions. Nagorniy Garabax is like bone we give the dog each time it starts to bark. Try to see your country not the eyes of your government, politicians, and people who have power. Try to be in different positions to see the truth.

Thank you for your comment, Elnara. Opening the minds of people to different points of view is precisely what we are working towards. Glad to have your support!

you remember the human rights when you profitable.

As a long serving Azerbaijanı Ambassador to the CoE(2007-2012), I can say that the weakest part of the organization is its Parliamentary Assembly, due to the negative influence of the "caviar diplomacy" of non-democratic regimes like in Azerbaijan. Even the SG of the CoE or the HR Commissioner can't do much to change the situation. With the newly elected President of PACE, Mr. Pedro Agramunt, the democratic camp should forget about the PACE and even the CoE for a while.

Dear Arif,

Many thanks for your comment. PACE's extremely poor performance, as pointed out by you, is what prompted us to suggest a role for SG Jaglund in coordinating a consistent COE reponse regarding the dire human rights situation in Azerbaijan.

Dear Marina,
I do agree that the role of the SC together with the HR Commissioner should be enhanced. Azerbaijan is not excecuting the decision of the ECHR on Ilgar Mammadov of 13.10.2014 with the call for his immediate release. There should be not just calls, but actions against the government as well.

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