In October 2017, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) approved a $500 million loan for the Azerbaijani-led TANAP pipeline, despite allegations of high-level corruption in the framework of the Azerbaijani Laundromat. On 16 January 2019, the EBRD invited representatives of civil society to participate in the review process of the bank’s country strategy on Azerbaijan, last updated in 2014. Here are the remarks of Rebecca Vincent, UK Director of Reporters Without Borders, an advocacy group working on freedom of information and freedom of the press, on the state of Azerbaijan:
Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to today’s consultation on Azerbaijan. I am here on behalf of Reporters Without Borders, known internationally as Reporters sans frontières (RSF), which works to promote and protect press freedom globally.
I also want to note that I previously worked in-depth on Azerbaijan for a full decade, from 2006 to 2016 in various capacities including as a U.S. diplomat, with international NGOs, and directly with local rights groups on the ground in Baku until I was groundlessly expelled from the country in connection with my human rights work.
I have witnessed more repression in Azerbaijan than I ever thought possible, as my colleagues – the best and the brightest of Azerbaijan’s independent media and civil society – have been systematically targeted for exposing corruption and human rights abuses and criticising the Aliyev regime. They – and their family members – have been harassed, threatened, intimidated, physically attacked, suffered gross privacy rights violations including the publishing of sex videos filmed by hidden camera, had their bank accounts frozen, faced lengthy prison sentences on fabricated charges, been tortured in custody, become trapped in Azerbaijan under travel bans or forced out of the country into exile abroad, been stripped of their Azerbaijani nationality and rendered stateless, and in the cases of two journalists I knew – murdered.
During this ever-increasing crackdown, in my various capacities, I have periodically engaged with the EBRD, which unfortunately has continued with business as usual with Azerbaijan despite these systemic human rights violations and steady erosion of rule of law in the country. Continuing to provide funding to the Azerbaijani government, whilst turning a blind eye to these violations, is only serving to enable this repression.
Let me turn now to a number of specific press freedom concerns we have in the country. Azerbaijan has one of the worst press freedom records in the world, ranked 163rd out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index. We currently know of at least eight journalists and two citizen journalists unjustly jailed in Azerbaijan in connection with their work. The leading critical media outlets have been silenced or forced into exile, the main independent websites are blocked, and the activities of NGOs that support the media have been criminalised.
One of the country’s jailed journalists – a young photographer, videographer and blogger, Mehman Huseynov – is today entering his fourth week on hunger strike. Mehman has been imprisoned since March 2017, and had nearly completed his two-year sentence on ludicrous charges of “defaming” a police officer, only to be presented with even more absurd charges of attacking a prison guard, for which he could face a staggering further seven years in jail. I want to underscore that Mehman – himself now accused of violence – previously reported being tortured in custody, for which no one was ever held to account.
A growing group of other political prisoners have now joined this hunger strike, as have a group of activists and journalists from outside of prison, including prominent investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, previously imprisoned herself, and against whom authorities now appear to be constructing a new criminal case. One of the jailed citizen journalists that has joined this hunger strike, Rashad Ramazanov, has been in prison since 2013. Let that sink in: six long years and counting, for a blog. The hunger strikers are demanding freedom for Azerbaijan’s dozens of political prisoners.
In case these hunger strikes do not seem sufficiently serious, I want to note here that the Azerbaijani authorities have previously allowed political prisoners to die behind bars, including journalist Novruzali Mammadov in 2009, despite widespread international calls for his release. Azerbaijan is also a country where four journalists have been murdered with impunity since 2005. The right to life of those who criticise the Aliyev regime is not protected, and the hunger striking prisoners are at serious risk.
Another jailed journalist, Afgan Mukhtarli, is serving a six-year sentence on fabricated charges of smuggling, crossing the border illegally, and refusing to comply with instructions from police, after being abducted in another sovereign state – Georgia – and taken back to Azerbaijan against his will.
I could carry on at length with further outrageous examples, but I know our time is limited here today, so I will follow up in writing with our full list of jailed journalists and citizen journalists, as well as some other materials on the press freedom climate in Azerbaijan.
My point is that the Aliyev regime is acting with impunity, proceeding as if there will never be any serious consequences for its actions. It is flouting its freedom of expression obligations – and indeed, its broader human rights obligations – as enshrined in Azerbaijani law and in the international instruments it has committed to. It operates with complete disregard for the rule of law on matters both large and small. That makes Azerbaijan an incredibly risky investing climate, not the reliable international partner the Aliyev regime tries to present itself as.
If the EBRD is serious about its stated priorities of transparency and good governance, it should suspend all current projects with the Azerbaijani government and make any further loans contingent upon extensive concrete democratic reforms, including the immediate release of the currently jailed journalists and citizen journalists.
Reporters Without Borders stands ready to advise and assist with the serious pursuit of these reforms. (Meydan TV)