Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
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 and journalists in the country and in exile, including their relatives.
Freedom of Speech: Although the constitution provides for freedom of expression, the government continued to repress persons it considered political opponents or critics. The incarceration of such persons raised concerns regarding authorities’ abuse of the judicial system to punish dissent. Human rights defenders considered five journalists and bloggers to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end. A number of incarcerations were widely seen as connected to the exercise of freedom of expression. For example, on November 16, Polad Aslanov, the editor in chief of the Xeberman.com and Press-az.com news websites, was convicted of alleged espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison. Human rights defenders asserted the case was a reprisal for Aslanov’s public assertion that the State Security Service demanded bribes from Azerbaijani pilgrims seeking to travel to Iran.
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, including placing activists in administrative detention for social media posts critical of the government. For example, on April 22, the Surakhani District Court sentenced Popular Front Party activist Arif Babayev to 10 days of administrative detention for dissemination of prohibited information on the internet. Authorities also continued attempts to impede criticism by reprimanding lawyers to intimidate them from speaking with media, as the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, noted in July 2019.
During the period of martial law from September 28 to December 12, which the government declared following the outbreak of hostilities on September 27, the government reportedly imposed restrictions on the work of some local and international journalists in the area of the conflict.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Throughout the year government-owned and progovernment outlets continued to dominate broadcast and print media. A limited number of independent online media outlets expressed a wide variety of views on government policies, but authorities pressured them in various ways for doing so. In 2019 the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) Media Sustainability Index noted that “access to independent news sources in Azerbaijan gets more limited from year to year” and concluded that “there is no independent print media in the country.”
Authorities continued exerting pressure on leading media rights organizations and independent media outlets outside the country as well as individuals associated with them in the country. Foreign media outlets, including Voice of America, RFE/RL, and the BBC, remained prohibited from broadcasting on FM radio frequencies, although the Russian service Sputnik, which was also originally prohibited from broadcasting, was subsequently allowed to broadcast news on a local radio network.
Violence and Harassment: During the year police occasionally used force against journalists, as well as other methods, to prevent their professional activities. On February 12, for example, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom of media, Harlem Desir, issued a statement deploring the previous night’s detentions, violent incidents, and mistreatment of at least eight journalists covering an election-related protest in Baku.
Local observers reported that journalists from independent media outlets were subjected to harassment and cyberattacks during the year. The harassment mainly targeted journalists from Radio Liberty, Azadliq and other newspapers, Meydan TV, and Obyektiv Television.
Civil society activists continued to call on the government to investigate effectively the high-profile killings of journalists Rasim Aliyev in 2015, Rafiq Tagi in 2011, and Elmar Huseynov in 2005.
Lawsuits believed to be politically motivated were also used to intimidate journalists and media outlets. On June 19, the Khatai District Court convicted of alleged hooliganism and sentenced Azadliq journalist Tazakhan Miralamli to limitation of liberty for one year. As a result he was required to wear an electronic bracelet and was prohibited from leaving his home from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. each day. Miralamli and activists asserted the aim of the sentence was to limit his journalistic activities.
Most locally based media outlets relied on the patronage of individuals close to the government or the State Media Fund for income. Those not benefitting from such support experienced financial difficulties, such as problems paying wages, taxes, and periodic court fines.
During the intensive fighting in the fall, there were credible reports of violence against journalists by Azerbaijani forces. According to Reporters without Borders (RSF), on October 27, a group of reporters wearing bulletproof vests clearly marked with the word “Press” were targeted when leaving a town 20 miles east of Stepanakert. Tom Mutch, a freelancer from New Zealand working for the United Kingdom’s Byline Times news website, Chuck Holton, a war correspondent with Christian Broadcasting Network, and an American crew sent by the Armenian online news site Civilnet.am told the RSF that although they were in cars marked “PRESS” and there were no military objectives in the area, they were deliberately targeted after being spotted by drones.
On October 8, an Azerbaijani military aircraft bombed the Holy Savior (Ghazanchetsots) Cathedral in Shusha. Several hours after the initial bombing, as journalists were reporting live from the site on the damage to the cathedral, the cathedral was bombed a second time, with precision-guided munitions, gravely injuring three of the journalists present. Multiple international observers confirmed that there were no military targets in the vicinity of the cathedral.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Most media outlets practiced self-censorship and avoided topics considered politically sensitive due to fear of government retaliation. The National Radio and Television Council continued to require 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. The law provides for substantial fines and up to three years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of libel or slander. Conviction of insulting the president is punishable by up to two years’ corrective labor or up to three years’ imprisonment.
During the year reports continued that the government restricted or disrupted online access. During a period of martial law from September 27 to December 12 that the government imposed following the outbreak of violence, authorities blocked access to some websites and social networks. Internet blockages occurred from the beginning of the violence until November 14. Blockages included social media sites such as YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram and impeded the functioning of many virtual private networks (VPNs). Throughout the year authorities continued to block independent media websites that offered views differing from government narratives and to incarcerate persons who expressed critical views online. Human rights defenders also reported that individuals were regularly summoned to police stations across the country, forced to delete social media posts that were critical of the government, and threatened with various punishments if they did not comply. On multiple occasions the government selectively cut or degraded internet access during political protests.
The IREX Media Sustainability Index for 2019–the most recent year for which the index was available–reported that in 2018 the number of websites blocked for some period of time reached 85, compared with 25 in 2017. The websites of the Voice of America, RFE/RL, and Azerbaijani media outlets, including Azadliq, Bastainfo.com, Criminal.az, Topxeber.az, Fia.az, Monitortv.info, Xural.com, Az24saat.org, Anaxaber.az, and Arqument.az, and the Germany-based media outlet Meydan TV remained blocked by authorities during the year.
On March 19, the Plenum of the Supreme Court reviewed a request by the Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technologies to block alternate means of accessing media banned in the country (through VPNs and secondary transmission of content through sites such as YouTube), including Meydan TV, Radio Azadlig, Azadlig newspaper, Turan TV, and Azerbaijan Saati, and forwarded it for consideration of the Baku Court of Appeal. A decision on the request was pending. Activists asserted that authorities conducted cyberattacks and used other measures and proxies to disrupt internet television programs.
On April 13, authorities cut the internet and telephone connections of Popular Front Party chairperson Ali Kerimli and his spouse. Their telephone connections were restored, although overnight disruptions continued throughout the year. As of December 31, Kerimli and his spouse remained unable to access the internet. On June 23, the Nasimi District Court refused to review a lawsuit Kerimli and his spouse filed challenging the government’s denial of access to the internet and telephone communications.
From May 15 through the morning of May 19, the news websites Turan.az and its affiliate Contact.az experienced a massive cyberattack and were blocked twice. The attack took place after the websites published articles criticizing the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On June 24, Germany-based independent media outlet Meydan TV experienced a cyberattack that resulted in the deletion of all its Facebook posts since 2018 as well as two months of its content from Instagram.
On November 3, a Baku Court convicted journalist and chief editor of the online publication Azel.TV, Afgan Sadigov, of alleged extortion and sentenced him to seven years’ imprisonment. Human rights defenders considered the case to be politically motivated, as Sadigov had criticized officials in his social media posts and was previously convicted for his journalism activities. Sadigov went on a hunger strike while in prison to protest the conviction.
The government requires internet service providers to be licensed and to have formal agreements with the Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technologies. The law imposes criminal penalties for conviction of libel and slander on the internet, which had a further chilling effect on open and free use of the medium.
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. On January 14, Azerbaijan Internet Watch reported phishing attacks against several civil society figures and an online news platform. The attack sought to disable antivirus software and surreptitiously record key strokes. Based on forensic research, Azerbaijan Internet Watch and its partner Qurium–a media foundation with expertise in digital forensic investigations–concluded the attacker was connected with the government. Some activists were summoned by security forces for making antiwar posts online during the intensive fighting in the fall. For example, in November activist Latif Mammadov reported that State Security Service officials threatened to kill him and his family for his antiwar posts online.
Freedom House’s annual Freedom on the Net report for the period from June 2019 through May again rated the country’s internet status as “not free.” The report concluded the state of internet freedom slightly deteriorated during the period covered. Despite some restrictions, the internet remained the primary method for citizens to access independent media. For example, while Meydan, Azadliq, and other media outlets were blocked, social media users were able to access their reports through Facebook, where videos and articles were shared without restrictions.
The government on occasion restricted academic freedom. Opposition party leaders reported their members had difficulty finding and keeping teaching jobs at schools and universities.
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government restricted these rights.
The government consistently and severely restricted freedom of peaceful assembly. Authorities at times responded to peaceful protests and assemblies by using force against or detaining protesters.
Prior to the imposition of restrictions aimed at combating COVID-19 in March, authorities prevented attempts by political opposition groups to organize demonstrations. For example, on February 11, police violently dispersed a protest concerning the conduct of the National Assembly elections and election results in front of the Central Election Commission. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) election observation mission reported it observed riot police loading protesters onto buses in a disproportionately forceful way and that some protesters were beaten while inside the buses. On February 16, police detained and put approximately 200 protesters into cars and buses, drove them to either the distant suburbs of Baku or other regions of the country, and released them there without explanation or means of return. Following the imposition of COVID-19 restrictions, these political groups did not attempt to organize demonstrations that would have otherwise been consistent with the right to freedom of assembly.
During a large and apparently unplanned mid-July gathering in support of the army during fighting along the border with Armenia, there were minor clashes between police and a group of protesters, causing damage to cars and property inside and outside the National Assembly. Police used violence to disperse the crowd. According to Human Rights Watch, police used water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets against peaceful protesters.
Following a nationally televised speech in which President Aliyev accused the opposition Popular Front Party of having organized the demonstration, authorities arrested at least 16 members of the party, one member of the opposition Azerbaijan Democracy and Welfare Movement, and two members of the Muslim Unity Movement on criminal charges. An additional 15 or more members of the Popular Front Party were sentenced to administrative detention. Authorities made apparently politically motivated arrests in connection with the proarmy rally, although the gathering was apparently neither planned by the political parties nor in support of either the opposition or general freedom of assembly rights.
The law permits administrative detention for up to three months for misdemeanors and up to one month for resisting police. Punishment for those who fail to follow a court order (including failure to pay a fine) may include substantial fines and 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 rather than merely prior notification. Local authorities required all rallies to be preapproved and held at designated locations far from the city center of Baku and with limited access by public transportation. Most political parties and NGOs criticized the requirements as unacceptable and characterized them as unconstitutional.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the law places some restrictions on this right and severely constrained NGO activities. Citing these 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.
The administrative code and laws on NGOs, grants, and registration of legal entities impose additional restrictions on NGO activities and the operation of unregistered, independent, and foreign organizations. The law also places some restrictions on donors. For example, foreign donors are required to obtain preapproval before signing grant agreements with recipients. The law makes unregistered and foreign NGOs vulnerable to involuntary dissolution, intimidates and dissuades potential activists and donors from joining and supporting civil society organizations, and restricts NGOs’ ability to provide grants to unregistered local groups or individual heads of such organizations.
Government regulations provide for a “single window” mechanism for registering grants. Under the procedures, grant registration processes involving multiple agencies are merged. The procedures were not fully implemented, however, further reducing the number of operating NGOs.
The Ministry of Justice is permitted by law to monitor NGO activities and conduct inspections of NGOs. The law offers few provisions protecting NGO rights and authorizes substantial fines on NGOs 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. While the Prosecutor General’s Office dropped criminal cases against the American Bar Association and IREX and ordered their bank accounts unfrozen in July, the two groups continued to face administrative difficulties, such as a remaining tax levy imposed on IREX. Problems remained for other groups. For example, the bank accounts of the Democracy and Human Rights Resource Center remained frozen, and the organization was unable to operate (see section 5).
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 their support of “the Azerbaijani people’s national and cultural values” and not 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, at least four foreign NGOs had been able to renew their registrations under these rules.
NGO representatives stated the Ministry of Justice did not act on their applications, particularly those from individuals or organizations working on matters related to democratic development. Activists asserted the development of civil society had been stunted by years of government bureaucracy that impeded registration and that the country would otherwise have more numerous and more engaged independent NGOs.
d. Freedom of Movement
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 some prominent opposition figures, activists, and journalists.
During the period of martial law following the September 27 outbreak of intensive fighting with Armenia and Armenia-supported separatists, the government imposed a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. in six cities, including Baku and Ganja, and 16 districts.
Foreign Travel: Authorities continued to prevent a number of opposition figures, activists, and journalists from traveling outside the country. Examples included Popular Front Party chairperson Ali Kerimli (prohibited from traveling since 2006), investigative journalist and activist Khadija Ismayilova, and lawyer Intigam Aliyev.
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 and given suspended sentences were not permitted to travel abroad until the terms of their suspended sentences had been met.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported 652,326 registered internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country as of midyear. The vast majority fled their homes between 1988 and 1994 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 continued to state the government did not adequately promote the integration of IDPs into society.
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
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 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 1,591 refugees (a number that included state-recognized refugees and those recognized as such only by UNHCR) in the country lacked access to social services. Many refugee children, however, were able to enroll 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 year’s end. According to the State Migration Service, 409 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.
Stateless persons generally enjoyed freedom of internal movement. Stateless persons were not, however, issued travel documents or readmitted if they left the country. The law provides stateless persons with access to the basic rights of citizens, 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 stripped one person of citizenship.