The Azerbaijani constitution provides for a republic with a presidential form of government. Legislative authority is vested in the Milli Mejlis (National Assembly). The presidency is the predominant branch of government, exceeding the judiciary and legislature. The election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) concluded that the April 11 presidential election took place within a restrictive political environment and under a legal framework that curtailed fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections. National Assembly elections in 2015 could not be fully assessed due to the absence of an OSCE election observation mission, but independent observers alleged numerous irregularities throughout the country.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Separatists, with Armenia’s support, continued to control most of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories. The final status of Nagorno-Karabakh remained the subject of international mediation by the OSCE Minsk Group. Violence along the Line of Contact continued, although at lower levels starting in October, after the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders met in Dushanbe.
Human rights issues included unlawful or arbitrary killing; torture; arbitrary detention; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; criminalization of libel; physical attacks on journalists; arbitrary interference with privacy; interference in the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association through intimidation; incarceration on questionable charges; harsh physical abuse of selected activists, journalists, and secular and religious opposition figures; blocking of websites; restrictions on freedom of movement for a growing number of journalists and activists; refoulement; severe restrictions on political participation; systemic government corruption; police detention and torture of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals; and worst forms of child labor, which the government made minimal efforts to eliminate.
The government did not prosecute or punish most officials who committed human rights abuses; impunity remained a problem.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were several reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
In July and August, the government announced that security services had killed five individuals who allegedly resisted police during their arrest. The authorities claimed the individuals were involved in the July 3 attempted murder of Ganja mayor Elmar Valiyev and the subsequent July 10 killing of two police officers. Human rights defenders alleged the five individuals had not resisted arrest and that police and state security services planned the killings in advance.
On September 26, Teymur Akhundov died in the Gazakh Police station after he was summoned for questioning. Akhundov’s family alleged his death was caused by physical abuse by police.
On September 13, State Border Service private Huseyn Gurbanov died under unclear circumstances. Authorities stated he committed suicide, but family members publicly alleged members of his unit killed him during a hazing ritual.
Separatists, with Armenia’s support, continued to control most of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories. The final status of Nagorno-Karabakh remained the subject of international mediation by the OSCE Minsk Group, cochaired by France, Russia, and the United States. Violence along the Line of Contact continued, although at lower levels starting in October, after the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders met in Dushanbe. Recurrent shooting and shelling caused casualties among military and civilians. Following the April 2016 outbreak in violence, the sides to the conflict submitted complaints to the ECHR accusing each other of committing atrocities during that time. The cases remained pending with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
As of November 20, local human rights organizations reported at least 31 noncombat-related deaths in security forces, including suicides and soldiers killed by fellow service members.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The State Committee on the Captive and Missing reported that 3,868 citizens were registered as missing because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) processed cases of persons missing in connection with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and worked with the government to develop a consolidated list of missing persons. According to the ICRC, more than 4,496 persons remained unaccounted for because of the conflict.
While the constitution and criminal code prohibit such practices and provide for penalties for conviction of up to 10 years’ imprisonment, credible allegations of torture and other abuse continued. Most mistreatment took place while detainees were in police custody, where authorities reportedly used abusive methods to coerce confessions.
On July 18, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) published reports of six visits it conducted to the country between 2004-17. In the reports the CPT stated its overall impression of the situation in the country was that torture and other forms of physical mistreatment by police and other law enforcement agencies, corruption in the entire law enforcement system, and impunity remained systemic and endemic. The 2017 CPT delegation reported receiving numerous credible allegations of severe physical abuse that it stated could be considered torture, such as truncheon blows to the soles of the feet and infliction of electric shocks. The goal of the alleged abuse reportedly was to force the detainees to sign a confession, provide other information, or accept additional charges. In contrast to previous visits, the delegation also reported receiving allegations of what it termed “severe ill treatment/torture” by the State Customs Committee, the State Border Service, and the Armed Forces.
In January 2017 authorities arrested prominent blogger and Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) chairman Mehman Huseynov in the Nizami district of Baku for allegedly resisting police. In a news conference the following day, he stated police tortured him while he was in their custody. The head of Nizami police pressed charges against Huseynov for criminal defamation; in March 2017 a Baku court convicted him and sentenced him to two years in prison (see section 1.c., Political Prisoners and Detainees).
There were also reports of torture in prisons. In one example, media reported family member claims that in April imprisoned deputy head of the Muslim Unity Movement Abbas Huseynov was severely beaten and left chained in an isolation cell in Gobustan Prison. He was subsequently chained to an iron post in the prison yard, exposed to the elements, from morning until night. This followed media and human rights lawyers’ reports in August 2017 of Huseynov’s torture in the same prison. Authorities did not investigate the allegations.
Authorities reportedly maintained an implicit ban on independent forensic examinations of detainees who claimed mistreatment and delayed their access to an attorney–practices that opposition figures and other activists stated made it easier for officers to mistreat detainees with impunity. Authorities reportedly delayed the forensic examination of Yunus Safarov for 21 days after photos showing marks of severe abuse on his body were circulated in social media immediately after his arrest on charges of attempted murder of the then Ganja mayor.
On March 31, police from the Antitrafficking Department (ATD) of the Ministry of Internal Affairs detained youth activist Fatima Movlamli, who at that time was 17 years old and a legal minor. They held her incommunicado for five days on the premises of the Baku ATD, during which time they slapped her around the head and shoulders and threatened to rape her if she did not sign a document acknowledging she was involved in prostitution.
Local observers again reported bullying and abuse in military units during the year. For example, on August 3, private Fahmin Abilov committed suicide after reportedly suffering abuse. His commanding officer and two privates were arrested in connection with his death. The Ministry of Defense maintained a telephone hotline for soldiers to report incidents of mistreatment to hold unit commanders responsible.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
According to a reputable prison-monitoring organization, prison conditions were sometimes harsh and potentially life threatening due to overcrowding, inadequate nutrition, deficient heating and ventilation, and poor medical care. Detainees also complained of inhuman conditions in the crowded basement detention facilities of local courts where they awaited trial. They reported those facilities lacked ventilation and proper sanitary conditions.
Physical Conditions: Authorities held men and women together in pretrial detention facilities in separate blocks but housed women in separate prison facilities after sentencing. Local NGO observers reported female prisoners typically lived in better conditions than male prisoners, were monitored more frequently, and had greater access to training and other activities, but that women’s prisons still suffered from many of the same problems as prisons for men. The Ministry of Justice reported that during the year five children less than three years of age lived in adult prison facilities with their incarcerated mothers. Convicted juvenile offenders may be held in juvenile institutions until they are 20 years old.
While the government continued to construct new facilities, some Soviet-era facilities still in use did not meet international standards. Gobustan Prison, Prison No. 3, Prison No. 14, and the penitentiary tuberculosis treatment center reportedly had the worst conditions.
Human rights advocates reported guards sometimes punished prisoners with beatings or by holding them in isolation cells. Local and international monitors reported markedly poorer conditions at the maximum-security Gobustan Prison.
Prisoners at times claimed they endured lengthy confinement periods without opportunity for physical exercise. They also reported instances of cramped, overcrowded conditions; inadequate ventilation; poor sanitary facilities; inedible food; and insufficient access to medical care. An example of the latter was the denial of timely eye surgery by Baku prison authorities for Mahammad Ibrahim, an opposition Popular Front Party senior advisor, causing permanent damage to his sight. On September 29, just one day prior to his expected release, he was charged by prison officials with illegal possession of a knife, a violation that carries the possibility of up to six additional months of imprisonment. Another Popular Front Party member, Elnur Farajov, died on August 10 from cancer shortly after his release from prison. Family members said he was not properly treated for the disease while incarcerated.
Former prisoners and family members of imprisoned activists reported prisoners often had to pay bribes to meet visiting family members, watch television, use toilets or shower rooms, or to receive food from outside the detention facility. Although the law permits detainees to receive daily packages of food to supplement the food officially provided, authorities at times reportedly restricted access of prisoners and detainees to family-provided food parcels. Some prisons and detention centers did not provide access to potable water.
Administration: While most prisoners reported they could submit complaints to judicial authorities and the Ombudsman’s Office without censorship, prison authorities regularly read prisoners’ correspondence, monitored meetings between lawyers and clients, and restricted some lawyers from bringing documents in and out of detention facilities. While the Ombudsman’s Office reported conducting systematic visits and investigations into complaints, activists reported the office was insufficiently active in addressing prisoner complaints by, for example, failing to investigate allegations of torture and abuse, such as those made by Muslim Unity Movement deputy chair Abbas Huseynov and N!DA activist Ilkin Rustamzade.
Authorities at times limited visits by attorneys and family members, especially to prisoners widely considered to be incarcerated for political reasons.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted some prison visits by international and local organizations, including the ICRC. Authorities generally permitted the ICRC access to prisoners of war and civilian internees held in connection with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as well as to detainees held in facilities under the authority of the Ministries of Justice and Internal Affairs and the State Security Services.
The ICRC conducted regular visits throughout the year to provide for protection of prisoners under international humanitarian law and regularly facilitated the exchange of messages between them and their families to help them re-establish and maintain contact.
A joint government-human rights community prison-monitoring group known as the Public Committee was allowed access to prisons without prior notification to the Penitentiary Service. On some occasions, however, other groups that reportedly gave prior notification experienced difficulty obtaining access.
Improvements: On July 18, the CPT reported a presidential executive order had resulted in some improvements, mainly in reducing prison overcrowding. The CPT noted, however, that the national and international minimal standard for living space per inmate had not yet been achieved in pretrial facilities visited in October 2017, especially in Shuvalan and Ganja.
Although the law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of persons to challenge the lawfulness of their arrest or detention in court, the government generally did not observe these requirements.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service are responsible for security within the country and report directly to the president. The Ministry of Internal Affairs oversees local police forces and maintains internal civil defense troops. The State Security Service is responsible for domestic matters, and the Foreign Intelligence Service focuses on foreign intelligence and counterintelligence issues. NGOs reported both services detained individuals who exercised their rights to fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression. The State Migration Service and the State Border Service are responsible for migration and border enforcement. Activists reported the State Border Service played a role in facilitating detentions at the border of some who exercised their rights to fundamental freedoms.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the State Security Service, and the Foreign Intelligence Service. The government lacked effective mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse; widespread corruption resulted in limited oversight, and impunity involving the security forces was widespread.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
The law provides that persons detained, arrested, or accused of a crime be accorded due process, including being advised immediately of their rights and the reason for their arrest. In cases deemed to be politically motivated, due process was not respected, and accused individuals were convicted under a variety of spurious criminal charges.
According to the law, detainees are to be brought before a judge within 48 hours of arrest, and the judge may issue a warrant placing the detainee in pretrial detention, placing the detainee under house arrest, or releasing the detainee. In practice, however, authorities at times detained individuals held for longer than 48 hours for several days without warrants. The initial 48-hour arrest period may be extended to 96 hours under extenuating circumstances. During pretrial detention or house arrest, the Prosecutor General’s Office is to complete its investigation. Pretrial detention is limited to three months but may be extended by a judge up to 18 months, depending on the alleged crime and the needs of the investigation. There were reports of detainees not being informed promptly of the charges against them.
A formal bail system existed, but judges did not utilize it during the year. The law provides for access to a lawyer from the time of detention, but there were reports that authorities frequently denied lawyers’ access to clients in both politically motivated and routine cases. For example, media outlets reported that a lawyer was not able to gain access to Popular Front Party members Agil Maharremov, Ruslan Nasirli, and Babek Hasanov for days following their initial detention. Access to counsel was poor, particularly outside of Baku. Although entitled to legal counsel by law, indigent detainees often did not have such access.
Human rights defenders stated that many of the more than 60 individuals detained after the attempted assassination of the mayor of Ganja and subsequent killing of two police officers in July were denied access to legal representation.
Police at times held politically sensitive and other suspects incommunicado for periods that ranged from several hours to several days. In March human rights defenders reported police illegally held youth activist Fatima Movlamli, a legal minor at the time, incommunicado for five days in the Baku Antitrafficking Department Crime before releasing her without charge. On May 12, Popular Front Party supporter Saleh Rustamov was detained and held incommunicado for 15 days.
Prisoners’ family members reported that authorities occasionally restricted visits, especially to persons in pretrial detention, and withheld information about detainees. Days sometimes passed before families could obtain information about detained relatives. Authorities reportedly used family members as leverage to put pressure on individuals to turn themselves in to police or to stop them from reporting police abuse. Family members of Popular Front Party activists Babek Hasanov, Ruslan Nasirli, and Agil Maharramov stated in November that, contrary to the law, authorities had prohibited all contact with their relatives since police detained them in May for alleged illegal entrepreneurship and money laundering. Human rights defenders stated the charges and isolation from family was punishment for their political activities.
Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities often made arrests based on spurious charges, such as resisting police, illegal possession of drugs or weapons, tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, abuse of authority, or inciting public disorder. Local organizations and international groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticized the government for arresting individuals exercising their fundamental rights and noted that authorities frequently fabricated charges against them.
In a high-profile example, on June 4, shortly after completing a degree program abroad and returning to the country, lawyer Emin Aslanov was arrested by police and held incommunicado for a day at the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Main Department to Combat Organized Crime. He was sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention on charges of resisting police, but activists stated the arrest and detention were due to his past human rights work.
Pretrial Detention: Authorities held persons in pretrial detention for up to 18 months. The Prosecutor General’s Office routinely extended the initial three-month pretrial detention period permitted by law in successive increments of several months until the government completed an investigation.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: By law persons arrested or detained, regardless of whether on criminal or other grounds, are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis, length, or arbitrary nature of their detention and obtain prompt release and compensation if found to have been unlawfully detained. The judiciary did not rule independently in such cases, however, and in some cases the outcomes appeared predetermined.
Amnesty: On May 24, the president pardoned 634 prisoners, but human rights defenders considered few to be political prisoners, with the exceptions of Popular Front Party member Elnur Farajov, writer Saday Shakarli, and 10 religious activists.
There were reports authorities required prisoners to write letters seeking forgiveness for past “mistakes” as a condition of their pardon.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, judges did not function independently of the executive branch. The judiciary remained largely corrupt and inefficient. Many verdicts were legally insupportable and largely unrelated to the evidence presented during the trial. Outcomes frequently appeared predetermined. Courts often failed to investigate allegations of torture and inhuman treatment of detainees in police custody.
The Ministry of Justice controlled the Judicial Legal Council. The council appoints a judicial selection committee (six judges, a prosecutor, a lawyer, a council representative, a Ministry of Justice representative, and a legal scholar) that administers the judicial selection examination and oversees the long-term judicial training and selection process.
Credible reports indicated that judges and prosecutors took instruction from the presidential administration and the Ministry of Justice, particularly in cases of interest to international observers. There were credible allegations judges routinely accepted bribes.
The law requires public trials except in cases involving state, commercial, or professional secrets or confidential, personal, or family matters. The law mandates the presumption of innocence in criminal cases. It also mandates the right of defendants to be informed promptly of charges; to a fair, timely, and public trial (although trials can be closed in some situations, for example, cases related to national security); to be present at the trial; to communicate with an attorney of their choice (or have one provided at public expense if unable to pay); to provide adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense; to free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals; to confront witnesses and present witnesses’ evidence at trial; and not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Both defendants and prosecutors have the right to appeal. Authorities did not respect these provisions in many cases that were widely considered to be politically motivated.
Judges at times failed to read verdicts publicly or explain their decisions, leaving defendants without knowledge of the reasoning behind the judgment. Judges also limited the defendant’s right to speak. For example, in the third appeal ruling of Ilgar Mammadov, the judge did not explain the court’s rationale for releasing him on August 13 with two years’ probation when he had only 18 months of his sentence remaining.
Authorities sometimes limited independent observation of trials by having plainclothes police and others occupy courtroom seats and, in some cases, by refusing entry to observers. For example, the Baku Grave Crimes Court allowed only restricted access to the hearings of activist Orkhan Bakhishli. Information regarding trial times and locations was generally available, but in some political cases, hearings were canceled at the last minute and rescheduled with limited notice.
Although the constitution prescribes equal status for prosecutors and defense attorneys, judges often favored prosecutors when assessing motions, oral statements, and evidence submitted by defense counsel, without regard to the merits of their respective arguments. Judges also reserved the right to remove defense lawyers in civil cases for “good cause.” In criminal proceedings judges may remove defense lawyers because of a conflict of interest or if a defendant requests a change of counsel.
The law limits representation in criminal cases to members of the country’s progovernment Collegium (bar association). The number of defense lawyers willing and able to accept politically sensitive cases continued to shrink due to various measures taken by authorities, including by the collegium’s presidium, its managing body. Such measures–which included disciplinary proceedings resulting in censure and sometimes disbarment–intensified during 2017-18. For example, on June 11, the collegium voted to expel lawyer Irada Javadova after she voted against disbarring human rights attorney Yalchin Imanov in 2017. The collegium suspended human rights lawyers Fakhraddin Mehdiyev on January 22, Asabali Mustafayev and Nemat Karimli on April 23 for one year, and Agil Layij for six months on October 30. The collegium officially reprimanded lawyer Fuad Aghayev on July 10.
Other punitive tools employed by authorities against lawyers included correctional labor and financial penalties. For example, on November 23, the Binagadi district court fined and sentenced lawyer and human rights defender Aslan Ismayilov to one year of corrective labor for hooliganism after he allegedly slammed a door in the courtroom. Ismayilov was fined and sentenced to one and a half years corrective labor by the Sabayil district court for alleged criminal slander in a separate case July 31. Ismayilov stated the sentences were meant to punish him for his investigations of government corruption in the health sector.
Some activists estimated the number of remaining lawyers willing to take politically sensitive cases to be as low as four or five. The majority of the country’s human rights defense lawyers were based in Baku, which made it difficult for individuals living outside of Baku to receive timely and quality legal service.
Amendments to the law on legal representation came into force on February 5. The law previously permitted nonbar lawyers to represent clients in civil and administrative proceedings. Under the amended law, however, only members of the bar association are able to represent citizens in any legal process. Representatives of the legal community and NGOs criticized the amended law, asserting it had reduced citizens’ access to legal representation and further empowered the bar association to prevent human rights lawyers from representing individuals in politically motivated cases by limiting the number of human rights lawyers who are bar members in good standing.
During the year the collegium held examinations for lawyer-candidates and increased its membership from 900 to 1,500. Human rights defenders asserted new members were hesitant to work on human rights-related cases for fear they would be sanctioned by the collegium. Some activists and lawyer-candidates stated the examination process was biased and that examiners failed candidates who had previously been active in civil society on various pretexts.
The constitution prohibits the use of illegally obtained evidence. Despite some defendants’ claims that police and other authorities obtained testimony through torture or abuse, human rights monitors reported courts did not investigate allegations of abuse, and there was no independent forensic investigator to substantiate assertions of abuse.
Investigations often focused on obtaining confessions rather than gathering physical evidence against suspects. Serious crimes brought before the courts most often ended in conviction, since judges generally sought only a minimal level of proof and collaborated closely with prosecutors.
With the exception of the Baku Court of Grave Crimes, human rights advocates also reported courts often failed to provide interpreters despite the constitutional right of an accused person to interpretation. Courts are entitled to contract interpreters during hearings, with expenses covered by the state budget.
There were no verbatim transcripts of judicial proceedings. Although some of the newer courts in Baku made audio recordings of some proceedings, courts generally did not record most court testimonies, oral arguments, and judicial decisions. Instead, the court recording officer generally decided the content of notes, which tended to be sparse.
The country has a military court system with civilian judges. The Military Court retains original jurisdiction over any case related to war or military service.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
Political prisoners and detainees are entitled to the same rights as other prisoners, although restrictions on them varied. According to OC Media, political prisoners faced special prohibitions on reading and communication with their families. Authorities provided international humanitarian organizations access to political prisoners and detainees.
In addition to the presidential pardon on March 24, on April 5, the Supreme Court conditionally released journalist Aziz Orujov, who was convicted in December 2017 for illegal entrepreneurship and abuse of office. On August 13, the Sheki Court of Appeals conditionally released the chairman of the opposition Republican Alternative Party, Ilgar Mammadov. Mammadov had been incarcerated since 2013 despite rulings by the ECHR in 2014 and 2017 that his initial detention was illegal and that he had been denied a fair trial. On October 31, Ilgar Mammadov submitted a cassation appeal requesting full acquittal.
Nongovernmental estimates of political prisoners and detainees ranged from 128 to 156 at year’s end. According to human rights organizations, dozens of government critics remained incarcerated for politically motivated reasons as of November 23. The following individuals were among those widely considered political prisoners or detainees (also see sections 1.c., 1.d., 1.f., 2.a., 3, and 4).
On January 12, the Balakan District Court sentenced Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli to a six year prison term. Authorities reportedly abducted Mukhtarli in Georgia on May 30 and subsequently arrested him in Azerbaijan on smuggling and related charges, which were widely considered politically motivated. On April 24, the Sheki Court of Appeals upheld the verdict. On September 18, the Supreme Court rejected Mukhtarli’s appeal of the verdict.
On January 23, the Gazakh District Court sentenced deputy chairperson of the opposition Popular Front Party Gozel Bayramli to three years imprisonment on charges of attempted smuggling of currency across the border. Human rights defenders stated the case was politically motivated and that authorities punished Bayramli for her role in organizing authorized political demonstrations. On April 20, the Ganja Court of Appeals upheld the verdict.
On May 5, the Shirvan Criminal Court sentenced the leader of the local branch of the opposition Musavat Party, Alikram Khurshudov, to five years in prison on charges of hooliganism. On August 31, the Shirvan Court of Appeal reduced his sentence to four and half years. Human right defenders asserted the charges were politically motivated.
On March 1, the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of Muslim Unity Movement leader Taleh Bagirzada, his deputy, Abbas Huseynov, and 16 other persons. The court also rejected the appeal of Fuad Gahramanli, one of three deputy chairs of the secular opposition Popular Front Party, on March 1. In January 2017 the Baku Grave Crimes Court had sentenced Bagirzada and Huseynov to 20 years in prison. Sixteen other persons associated with the case received prison terms ranging from 14 years and six months to 19 years on charges including terrorism, murder, calling for the overthrow of the government, and inciting religious hatred. In a related case Gahramanli was sentenced to 10 years in prison in January 2017. Human rights defenders asserted the government falsified and fabricated the charges to halt the spread of political opposition in the country. In July 2017 the Baku Court of Appeal upheld the verdicts.
On June 25, the Supreme Court rejected the second appeal of prominent blogger and IRFS chairman Mehman Huseynov. In March 2017 a Baku court convicted him and sentenced him to two years in prison for alleged defamation. On August 24, a Baku Court rejected Mehman Huseynov’s request for early release. On October 17, Baku Court of Appeals upheld this verdict.
On March 6, The Supreme Court rejected the appeal of Fuad Ahmadli. In June 2017 the Baku Grave Crimes Court sentenced Ahmadli, a member of the Youth Committee of the Popular Front Party, to four years’ imprisonment for alleged abuse of office and purportedly illegally accessing private information at the mobile operator where he worked. The Baku Court of Appeals upheld the verdict in August 2017. Human rights defenders stated he was punished for participating in protest actions and for criticizing the government on social media.
Other individuals considered by activists to be political detainees included Popular Front Party members Vidadi Rustamli, Agil Maharramov, Ruslan Nasirli, Babek Hasanov, party supporter Saleh Rustamov, and exiled Musavat Party activist Azad Hasanov.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
Citizens have the right to file lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, human rights violations. All citizens have the right to appeal to the ECHR within six months of exhausting all domestic legal options, including an appeal to and ruling by the Supreme Court.
Citizens exercised the right to appeal local court rulings to the ECHR and brought claims of government violations of commitments under the European Convention on Human Rights. The government’s compliance with ECHR decisions was mixed; activists stated the government generally paid compensation but failed to release prisoners in response to ECHR decisions.
NGOs reported authorities did not respect the laws governing eminent domain and expropriation of property. Homeowners often reported receiving compensation well below market value for expropriated property and had little legal recourse. NGOs also reported many citizens did not trust the court system and were, therefore, reluctant to pursue compensation claims.
The law prohibits arbitrary invasions of privacy and monitoring of correspondence and other private communications. The government generally did not respect these legal prohibitions.
While the constitution allows for searches of residences only with a court order or in cases specifically provided for by law, authorities often conducted searches without warrants. It was widely reported that the State Security Service and the Ministry of Internal Affairs monitored telephone and internet communications, particularly those of foreigners, prominent youth active online, some political and business figures, and persons engaged in international communication. There were indications the postal service monitored certain mail for politically sensitive subject matter.
Police continued to intimidate, harass, and sometimes arrest family members of suspected criminals, independent journalists, and political opposition members and leaders, as well as employees and leaders of certain NGOs. For example, Elnur Seyidov, the brother-in-law of opposition Popular Front Party chairman Ali Kerimli, remained incarcerated since 2012 on charges widely viewed as politically motivated. Murad Adilov, the brother of journalist and Popular Front Party activist Natig Adilov, was arrested in 2014 and sentenced to six years in prison.
There were several examples of the use of politically motivated incarceration of relatives as a means of putting pressure on exiles. For example, in February authorities arrested and sentenced to administrative detention the nephews of exiled activist Ordukhan Temirkhan; some of his other relatives had been sentenced to administrative detention in 2017.
There were also reports authorities fired individuals from their jobs or had individuals fired in retaliation for the political or civic activities of family members inside or outside the country. For example during the year there were reports that Popular Front Party members were fired from their jobs after participating in a peaceful protest.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
While the law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and specifically prohibits press censorship, the government habitually violated these rights. The government limited freedom of expression and media independence. Journalists faced intimidation and at times were beaten and imprisoned. During the year authorities continued to pressure media, journalists in the country and in exile, and their relatives.
Freedom of Expression: The constitution provides for freedom of expression, but the government continued to repress persons it considered political opponents or critics. The incarceration of such persons raised concerns about authorities’ abuse of the judicial system to punish dissent. Human rights defenders considered nine journalists and bloggers and one poet to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end, including Afgan Mukhtarli, who was sentenced to six years in prison on January 12 by the Balakan District Court. The Sheki Court of Appeals upheld the ruling on April 24 and the Supreme Court rejected the appeal on September 18. Mukhtarli had been living in Georgia before he was reportedly abducted from Tbilisi in May 2017 (see the Country Reports on Human Rights for Georgia).
A number of other incarcerations were widely viewed as related to the exercise of freedom of expression. For example, authorities arrested opposition Popular Front Party youth activist Orkhan Bakhishli four days after he gave a speech on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, at the grave of journalist Elmar Huseynov. In his speech, Bakhishli held President Aliyev responsible for Huseynov’s killing. On September 18, he was sentenced to six years in prison. Bakhishli had been sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention in late March and released a few days before his May 3 speech.
The constitution prohibits hate speech, defined as “propaganda provoking racial, national, religious, and social discord and animosity,” as well as “hostility and other criteria.”
In addition to imprisonment, the government attempted to impede criticism through other measures. Authorities placed activists in administrative detention for their critical social media posts. For example, on May 22, opposition Popular Front Party member Rahib Salimli was sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention after he used social media to call for the release of political prisoners.
Press and Media Freedom: Government-owned and progovernment outlets continued to dominate broadcast and print media throughout the year. A limited number of independent online media outlets expressed a wide variety of views on government policies, but authorities penalized them in various ways for doing so. The 2018 IREX Media Sustainability Index stated that “mainstream news media are under the strict control of the ruling elite and only report news that suits its purposes.” No significant opposition printed publications remained in the country.
Authorities continued exerting pressure on leading media rights organizations.
Foreign media outlets, including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and the BBC, remained prohibited from broadcasting on FM radio frequencies, although the Russian service Sputnik was allowed to broadcast news on a local radio network. On August 1, authorities shut the progovernment media holding company APA News Agency, further reducing sources of information in the country.
During the year authorities continued to pressure independent media outlets outside the country and those individuals associated with them in the country. In high-profile examples, authorities continued the criminal case against Meydan TV initiated in 2015.
Violence and Harassment: Local observers reported journalists from independent media outlets were subject to physical and cyberattacks during the year. The attacks mainly targeted journalists from Radio Liberty, Azadliq and other newspapers, Meydan TV, and Obyektiv Television.
Activists claimed that impunity for assaults against journalists remained a problem. Authorities did not effectively investigate the majority of physical attacks on journalists, and such cases often went unsolved. There were no indications that authorities held police officers accountable for physical assaults on journalists that took place in prior years. Journalists and human rights defenders continued to call for full accountability for the 2015 beating and death of journalist and IRFS chairman Rasim Aliyev, who reported receiving threatening messages three weeks earlier; the 2011 killing of journalist Rafiq Tagi, against whom Iranian cleric Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani issued a fatwa; and the 2005 killing of independent editor and journalist Elmar Huseynov.
Lawsuits believed to be politically motivated were used to intimidate journalists and media outlets. For example, Kanal 13 journalist Ismail Islamoglu stated publicly that police detained him on October 26 and subjected him to physical and psychological pressure for three days for his journalistic activities. In July the Prosecutor General’s Office opened criminal cases against websites Bastainfo.comand Criminal.az and interrogated their editors in chief and journalists for their reporting on the assault on Ganja mayor Elmar Valiyev.
Most locally based media outlets relied on political parties, influential sponsors, or the State Media Fund for financing. Those not benefitting from this type of financing experienced financial difficulties, such as problems paying wages, taxes, and periodic court fines.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Most media practiced self-censorship and avoided topics considered politically sensitive due to fear of government retaliation. The National Radio and Television Council required that local, privately owned television and radio stations not rebroadcast complete news programs of foreign origin.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses and cover written and verbal statements. The law provides for large fines and up to three years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of libel or slander. In May 2017 the law was amended increasing the fine for libel from 100 to 1,000 manat ($58 to $580) to 1,000 to 1,500 manat ($580 to $875). The fine for slander was increased from 300 to 1,000 manat ($175 to $580) to 1,000 to 2,000 manat ($580 to $1,170). The law was also amended so that insulting the president could no longer be punished by fines, leaving judges with the sole options of punishment of up to two years’ corrective labor or up to three years’ imprisonment.
Libel laws were employed against journalists. For example, in March 2017 a Baku city court sentenced blogger Mehman Huseynov to two years’ imprisonment for libel for publicly stating that he was tortured by police.
The authorities continued to block independent media websites that offered views that differed from government narratives.
Some activists and journalists suspected the government was behind the hacking of several social media accounts. In high-profile examples involving activists, on January 9, the Facebook page of Jamil Hasanli, chairman of the opposition National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF), was hacked and all posts on the page were deleted; on February 4, prominent NCDF member Gultekin Hajibeyli’s Facebook page was hacked. In an illustrative example involving the media, on January 29, the Facebook pages of independent media outlet Meydan TV were hacked.
In July and August, the Sabayil District Court granted the suits of the Ministry of Transportation, Communication, and High Technologies and blocked access to Bastainfo.com, Criminal.az, Topxeber.az, Fia.az, Monitortv.info, Xural.com, Az24saat.org, Anaxaber.az, and Arqument.az. On August 10, the Baku Court of Appeals court ruled to unblock Arqument. The websites of Voice of America, RFE/RL, and Azerbaijani media outlets including Azadliq, Turan, and Germany-based media outlet Meydan TV remained blocked by the authorities during the year.
The government also required internet service providers to be licensed and to have formal agreements with the Ministry of Transportation, Communications, and High Technologies. The law imposes criminal penalties for conviction of libel and insult on the internet.
There were strong indications the government monitored the internet communications of civil society activists. For example, activists reported being harassed by police and forced to delete critical Facebook posts under threat of physical abuse. During the year activists were questioned, detained, and frequently sentenced to administrative detention for posting criticism of government actions and commenting on human rights abuses online.
The Freedom House annual Freedom on the Net report, covering the period from June 2017 through May, showed a further reduction in internet freedom in the country. It stated that the government increasingly blocked access to news websites and noted cyberattacks against news websites and activists ahead of the April presidential election; new fines for distributing illegal content online; and the detention of journalists, bloggers, and social media users for their online publications.
According to International Telecommunication Union statistics, approximately 80 percent of the country’s population used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The government on occasion restricted academic freedom. Opposition party members reported difficulty finding teaching jobs at schools and universities.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government restricted these rights.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The government severely restricted freedom of peaceful assembly. Authorities at times responded to peaceful protests and assemblies by using force and detaining protesters. The law permits administrative detention for up to three months for misdemeanors and up to one month for resisting police. Punishment for those who failed to follow a court order (including failure to pay a fine) may include fines of 500 to 1,000 manat ($290 to $580) and punishment of up to one month of administrative detention.
While the constitution stipulates that groups may peacefully assemble after notifying the relevant government body in advance, the government continued to interpret this provision as a requirement for prior permission. Local authorities required all rallies to be preapproved and held at designated locations. Most political parties and NGOs criticized the requirements as unacceptable and characterized them unconstitutional. Authorities throughout the country routinely ignored applications for public rallies, effectively denying the freedom to assemble.
Activists stated that police routinely arrested individuals who peacefully sought to exercise their fundamental freedoms on false charges of resisting police that consistently resulted in periods of administrative detention up to 30 days. A total of 18 individuals were detained and sentenced to 15 to 30 days of administrative detention for their participation in government authorized opposition rallies on March 10, March 31, and April 14. Activists also stated that, as of April 15, more than 100 Popular Front party members were summoned or harassed by police and warned about participating in opposition demonstrations. In another high-profile example, Azer Gasimli and four other activists of the opposition Republican Alternative Party were arrested, charged with resisting police, and sentenced to administrative detention for their role in organizing an unauthorized march in the center of Baku on May 28 to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the founding of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. Police summoned dozens of other participants and warned them not to take part in similar future events.
The government also prevented opposition groups from gathering to visit culturally important sites, a practice authorities previously permitted. For example, on November 17, police detained approximately 50 opposition activists, including PFP Chairman Ali Kerimli and NCDF Chairman Jamil Hasanli, for attempting to hold a procession through Martyr’s Alley to commemorate National Revival Day. Most activists were released the same day, but Kerimli and approximately eight others were held incommunicado until November 19, when Kerimli and five others were released with fines and three PFP activists were sentenced to 20 days of administrative detention.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the law places some restrictions on this right, and amendments enacted during 2014 severely constrained NGO activities. Citing these amended laws, authorities conducted numerous criminal investigations into the activities of independent organizations, froze bank accounts, and harassed local staff, including incarcerating and placing travel bans on some NGO leaders. Consequently, a number of NGOs were unable to operate.
A number of legal provisions allow the government to regulate the activities of political parties, religious groups, businesses, and NGOs, including requiring NGOs to register with the Ministry of Justice if they seek “legal personality” status. Although the law requires the government to act on NGO registration applications within 30 days of receipt (or within an additional 30 days, if further investigation is required), vague, onerous, and nontransparent registration procedures continued to result in long delays that limited citizens’ right to associate. Other laws restrict freedom of association, for example, by requiring deputy heads of NGO branches to be citizens if the branch head is a foreigner.
Laws affecting grants and donations imposed a de facto prohibition on NGOs receiving cash donations and made it nearly impossible for them to receive anonymous donations or to solicit contributions from the public.
In 2014 the president approved a number of amendments to the administrative code and the laws on NGOs, grants, and registration of legal entities that imposed additional restrictions on NGO activities and closed several loopholes for the operations of unregistered, independent, and foreign organizations. The legislation also introduced some restrictions on donors. For example, foreign donors were required to obtain preapproval before signing grant agreements with recipients. The laws make unregistered and foreign NGOs vulnerable to involuntary dissolution, intimidated and dissuaded potential activists and donors from joining and supporting civil society organizations, and restricted their ability to provide grants to unregistered local groups or individual heads of such organizations.
In January 2017 the Cabinet of Ministers issued new regulations for establishing a “single window” mechanism to streamline the grant registration process. According to the new procedures, obtaining grant registration processes for multiple agencies were merged. The new procedures were not fully implemented, however, further reducing the number of operating NGOs.
In 2016 the Ministry of Justice adopted rules on monitoring NGO activities. The rules authorize the ministry to conduct inspections of NGOs, with few provisions protecting their rights, and provide the potential of harsh fines if they do not cooperate.
The far-reaching investigation opened by the Prosecutor General’s Office in 2014 into the activities of numerous domestic and international NGOs and local leadership remained open during the year. As a result a number of NGOs were unable to operate, the bank accounts of several NGOs remained frozen, and some NGO leaders were still prohibited from leaving the country.
The government continued to implement rules pursuant to a law that requires foreign NGOs wishing to operate in the country to sign an agreement and register with the Ministry of Justice. Foreign NGOs wishing to register a branch in the country are required to demonstrate they support “the Azerbaijani people’s national and cultural values” and commit not to be involved in religious and political propaganda. The decree does not specify any time limit for the registration procedure and effectively allows for unlimited discretion of the government to decide whether to register a foreign NGO. As of year’s end, no foreign NGOs had been able to register under these rules.
NGO representatives stated the Ministry of Justice did not act on submitted applications, particularly those from individuals or organizations working on issues related to democratic development. Some experts estimated up to 1,000 NGOs remained unregistered.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected many of these rights but continued its practice of limiting freedom of movement for at least 20 opposition figures, activists, and journalists.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Foreign Travel: Authorities continued to prevent a number of opposition figures, activists, and journalists from traveling outside the country. Examples included Popular Front Party chairman Ali Kerimli (banned from traveling since 2006), the head of the Republican Alternative Party Assembly, Azer Gasimli, investigative journalist and activist Khadija Ismayilova, lawyers Intigam Aliyev, Asabali Mustafayev, and Emin Aslanov, and at least 15 freelance journalists who filed material with Meydan TV. A travel ban was imposed on Republican Alternative Party chairman Ilgar Mammadov following his conditional release from prison on August 13 (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees). In August authorities lifted the travel ban on human rights activist Ogtay Gulaliyev that had been in place since 2011.
The law requires men of draft age to register with military authorities before traveling abroad. Authorities placed some travel restrictions on military personnel with access to national security information. Citizens charged with or convicted of criminal offenses but given suspended sentences also were not permitted to travel abroad.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
The Azerbaijani State Committee for Refugee and IDP Affairs reported 641,890 registered IDPs in the country, including persons in IDP-like situations, as of year’s end. UNHCR reported 620,422 registered IDPs in the country during the year. The vast majority fled their homes between 1988-93 as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
IDPs had access to education and health care, but their unemployment rate was higher than the national average. Some international observers stated the government did not adequately promote the integration of IDPs into society.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: There were press reports that Turkish citizens were transferred from Azerbaijan to Turkey–where they were detained by Turkish authorities–without due process. Citing Turkish media sources, Turan reported February 22 that Azerbaijani officials facilitated the detention and extradition to Turkey of Ayhan Seferoglu and Erdogan Taylor, both of whom had worked as teachers in Azerbaijan, despite Azerbaijani court rulings in their favor. After his detention, Serfoglu’s Azerbaijani wife reportedly asked the Azerbaijan State Migration Service to grant her husband political asylum; authorities subsequently informed Serfoglu’s Azerbaijani wife that the application had been rejected. Turkish authorities reportedly alleged Seferoglu and Taylor were followers of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. According to an April 18 Meydan TV report, Azerbaijani authorities also rendered three such Turkish citizens back to Turkey in 2017 in a similar manner.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to some refugees through the Refugee Status Determination Department at the State Migration Service, which is responsible for all refugee matters. Although UNHCR noted some improvements, the country’s refugee-status determination system did not meet international standards. International NGOs continued to report the service remained inefficient and did not operate transparently.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: According to UNHCR, the country did not allow Russian citizens who fled the conflict in Chechnya access to the national asylum procedure. UNHCR noted, however, that the country tolerated the presence of Chechen asylum seekers and accepted UNHCR’s role in providing for their protection and humanitarian needs.
Access to Basic Services: The estimated 1,131 refugees (a number that includes state-recognized refugees and those recognized as such only by UNHCR) in the country lacked access to social services. Many IDP and refugee children also enrolled at ordinary schools in numerous regions throughout the country.
Temporary Protection: The government did not provide temporary protection to asylum seekers during the year.
According to UNHCR statistics, there were 3,585 persons in the country under UNHCR’s statelessness mandate at the end of 2016, the most recent year for which data was available. According to the State Migration Service, 291 foreigners and stateless persons were granted citizenship during the year. The vast majority of stateless persons were ethnic Azerbaijanis from Georgia or Iran. NGOs stated there were many other undocumented stateless persons, with estimates ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands.
While the law provides for the right to apply for stateless status, some persons could not obtain the documentation required for the application and, therefore, remained formally unrecognized. The law on citizenship makes it difficult for foreigners and stateless persons to obtain citizenship.
For the most part, stateless persons enjoyed freedom of movement within the country. Stateless persons were not, however, issued travel documents or readmitted to Azerbaijan if they left the country. The law permits stateless persons access to basic rights, such as access to health care and employment. Nevertheless, their lack of legal status at times hindered their access to these rights.
The constitution allows citizenship to be removed “as provided by law.” During the year the government had stripped 85 persons of citizenship. On October 4, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights published a written statement noting the government’s 2015 deprivation of journalist Emin Huseynov’s citizenship should be viewed “as part of a broader pattern of intimidation of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan.”
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
Although the constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government through free and fair elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, the government continued to restrict this ability by interfering in the electoral process. While the law provides for an independent legislative branch, the National Assembly exercised little initiative independent of the executive branch.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: On February 5, the president issued a decree advancing the presidential election from October to April 11. Opposition parties boycotted the election, blaming a noncompetitive environment and insufficient time to prepare. According to the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) mission that observed the election, the presidential election took place in a restrictive political environment and under a legal framework that curtailed fundamental rights and freedoms that are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections. ODIHR concluded that, in the absence of pluralism, including in the media, the election lacked genuine competition. International and local observers reported widespread disregard for mandatory procedures, lack of transparency, and numerous serious irregularities, such as ballot box stuffing and carousel voting, on election day.
The OSCE/ODIHR cancelled its observation of the 2015 National Assembly elections when the government refused to accept its recommended number of election observers. Without ODIHR participation, it was impossible to assess properly the fairness of the elections. Independent local and international monitors who observed the election alleged a wide range of irregularities throughout the country, including blocking observers from entering polling stations, ballot stuffing, carousel voting, and voting by unregistered individuals; opposition monitors also alleged such irregularities. The country’s main opposition parties boycotted the election.
Following a 2016 referendum, constitutional amendments extended the presidential term from five to seven years and permitted the president to call early elections if twice in one year legislators passed no-confidence measures in the government or rejected presidential nominees to key government posts. The amendments also authorized the president to appoint one or more vice presidents, designating the senior vice president as first in the line of presidential succession. In February 2017 the president appointed his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, as first vice president. While observers from the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly reported the referendum was well executed, independent election observers identified numerous instances of ballot stuffing, carousel voting, and other irregularities, many of which were captured on video. They also observed significantly lower turnout than was officially reported by the Central Election Commission.
Political Parties and Political Participation: While there were 55 registered political parties, the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party dominated the political system. Domestic observers reported membership in the ruling party conferred advantages, such as preference for public positions. The National Assembly has not included representatives of the country’s main opposition parties since 2010.
During the year authorities continued to take various measures to prevent the Republican Alternative Movement from incorporating itself as a political party. For example, in October and November 2017, the Baku City Executive Authority denied the group’s repeated requests for space to hold a party congress and reportedly ordered private venues to refuse to rent space to the group. On April 7 and 8, the group held an online party congress and subsequently announced its transformation into a political party, acknowledging the online congress would not meet government requirements for registration.
The Popular Front Party was initially denied a venue for its party congress by the Baku City Executive Authority. After losing a court challenge, the city provided a venue on April 1.
Opposition members were more likely than other citizens to experience official harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention. Members of opposition political parties continued to be arrested and sentenced to administrative detention after making social media posts critical of the government or participating in peaceful rallies (see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). Human rights defenders estimated at least 60 individuals associated with opposition political parties were detained and sentenced to administrative detention under these circumstances during the year.
According to domestic NGOs, at least 15 opposition party members were considered to be political detainees or prisoners, including the head of the Shirvan branch of the Musavat Party, Alikram Kurshudov, and all three deputy chairs of the Popular Front Party, Gozel Bayramli, Fuad Gahramanli, and Seymur Hezi.
Opposition parties continued to have difficulty renting office space, reportedly because property owners feared official retaliation. Regional opposition party members often had to conceal the purpose of their gatherings and held them in teahouses and other remote locations. Opposition parties also faced formal and informal financing obstacles. For example, authorities continued to limit their financial resources by punishing those who provided material support, firing members of opposition parties, and by employing economic pressure on their family members.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. The first lady also held the appointed position of first vice president. The head of the State Committee for Family, Women, and Children Affairs, a cabinet-level position, was female, and 16.8 percent of members of the National Assembly were women.