By Amnesty International’s campaigner on South Caucasus, Levan Asatiani
Yesterday, when Ministers from across Europe gathered in Vienna to hand the Chair of the Council of Europe to Azerbaijan, they were greeted by an unexpected “delegation”. A vocal group of us – all Amnesty activists – were protesting against the intimidation, detention and continuing violence directed at critics of Azerbaijan’s authorities. One of our group stood in a cage, a reminder of the numerous prisoners of conscience still in jail solely for speaking out against their government.
Among those prisoners of conscience are eight Azerbaijani youth activists: Rashadat Akundov, Mammad Azizov, Bakhtiyar Guliyev, Zaur Gurbanli, Rashad Hasanov, Uzeyir Mammadli, Shahin Novruzlu and Ilkin Rustamzade. We held up placards bearing their photos during our protest. All eight are members of the pro-democracy youth movement NIDA, which campaigns against human rights abuses and widespread corruption in Azerbaijan.
Jailed for a Facebook event
While Azerbaijan was being made Chair of an institution considered to be the guardian of human rights in Europe, the judgement in the case of these young men was being read out. They were sentenced to prison terms of between six and eight years, on trumped-up charges of drug possession and “intent to cause public disorder”. Their real “crime”? Posting a Facebook event, calling for a peaceful protest against human rights abuses in the country.
They had been detained for over a year already, awaiting trial. Some of them were tortured and threatened with rape, in a bid to make them “confess”. As a result, Shahin Novruzlu, aged 17 at the time, lost four of his front teeth, and Mammad Azizov lost hearing in one ear.
The NIDA activists are educated youth, who are passionate about their country and dream of an Azerbaijan where democratic values and human rights are respected. By jailing them, the government is destroying not only their lives but also killing their dream and showing its true attitude towards human rights and freedoms.
Appalling human rights record
The Council of Europe is Europe’s principal human rights institution. Azerbaijan will lead its main decision-making body, the Committee of Ministers, from May to November 2014.
Meanwhile, its own human rights record is appalling. The rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association are limited in law and disregarded in practice. NGOs and journalists are harassed almost daily. And outspoken government critics are imprisoned on fabricated charges.
At the end of the day, I left Vienna with mixed feelings: satisfied that we managed to raise our voices; outraged at the news from the NIDA trial. Notwithstanding, I feel determined that our human rights campaign should continue. In the upcoming six months of Azerbaijan’s Chairmanship, we should enhance our efforts to mobilize effective international pressure and remind the Azerbaijani government that human rights start at home.