TheyWorkForYou.com website has published an article on Azerbaijan by British MP Helen Goodman. We present it completely.
It might seem strange for the United Nations to hold an internet governance forum in Azerbaijan. The internet is one of the most free means of communication—it was instrumental in facilitating recent political uprisings during the Arab spring—but unfortunately the same cannot be said in Azerbaijan. Before discussing the human rights situation, I wish to take a moment to describe this country on the Caspian. It is a very beautiful, wild and mountainous country in the Caucasus. At no point in its history has Azerbaijan been a liberal democracy, so unfortunately it has no such traditions to recover. From 1805 to 1991, it was part of the Russian empire, latterly of course in the Soviet Union. In fact, it was in Baku that the Tsars imprisoned Stalin. In the last 20 years, the country has prioritised rapid economic development, based on its substantial oil and gas reserves. It is, I am afraid to say, the spiritual home of the 4×4, and it has an unresolved conflict with its neighbour, Armenia.
That context may explain the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, but it certainly does not excuse it. This year, Azerbaijan has played host to two major international events. The first, as many people are aware, was the Eurovision song contest. The second was the UN internet governance forum that I attended. Those two events should have been an opportunity for Azerbaijan to step forward and open up. Unfortunately, the opposite seems to have happened, with the authorities clamping down even more aggressively on journalists and critics of the regime.
At the moment, Baku is plastered with huge posters of President Aliyev, whose father—incidentally—was also president. Most people, when they have photographs taken for political purposes, choose ones that are flattering. Unfortunately, I found President Aliyev’s 6-foot-wide grin more of a crocodile smile.
The petty reality of life in an autocracy was brought home to me on the first morning when all the traffic on the motorway was held up for 20 minutes to allow the official motorcade to pass through, but the problems are far more serious than that. One might expect a Government who are trying to impress the rest of the world to be on their best behaviour, but while I was there the authorities continued to jam the BBC television channel.
While I was there, the authorities continued to jam the BBC television channel and they held the trial of Avaz Zeynalli, who was accused of criticising the regime. The evidence was claimed to have been videoed, but neither the defendant nor his lawyer were shown the film. Finally, they hacked into the computer of Neelie Kroes’s staff while she attended the conference.
There is a long history of violence against journalists in Azerbaijan, which is documented by the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, an Azeri non-governmental organisation. According to the institute, in 2005, Elmar Huseynov, the editor of Monitor, was gunned down in Baku. In 2011, Rafiq Tagi, a critic of Iran and the impact of Islam on Azerbaijan, was stabbed and subsequently died. The level of intolerance is well illustrated by the case of Agil Khalil, who was assaulted and stabbed after investigating reports of trees being burned in an olive grove. In April this year, Idrak Abbasov was attacked by employees of the state oil company of Azerbaijan while filming the destruction of residential properties near an oil field outside Baku. He was beaten unconscious and was in hospital for a month. It is thought that he may have been targeted for exposing human rights abuses in the run-up to the Eurovision song contest. In fact, three weeks previously, he had received The Guardian journalism award at the Index on Censorship freedom of expression awards here in London. There is then the case of Khadija Ismayilova, who I met at the IGF. She had previously worked for Radio Free Europe. Her flat was bugged and a sex video of her, which was filmed secretly, was posted on the internet.
Amnesty International has asked, in particular, that I raise the case of Mehmen Hoseynov, who is facing five years in prison. He is accused of hooliganism for filming a protest on 21 May. Will the Minister raise his case with the Government of Azerbaijan and call for all charges against him to be dropped immediately and unconditionally? Index on Censorship is also concerned about the cases of Minas Sargsyan, Hilal Mamedov, Anar Bayramli, Jamal Ali and Faramaz Novruzoglu. I have e-mailed the Minister with the details of their cases, rather than detaining the House with the long stories attached to them, so that his office can look into them.
Those cases are not isolated incidents; they are part of a systematic repression of free speech in Azerbaijan. In Azerbaijan, defamation is a criminal offence. Media workers are persistently defamed and persecuted. Azerbaijan is the top jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia. Index on Censorship estimates that there are currently 70 political prisoners in Azerbaijani jails. Freedom of expression, assembly and association are limited.