The Azerbaijani constitution provides for a republic with a presidential form of government. Legislative authority is vested in the Milli Majlis (National Assembly). The presidency is the main branch of government, dominating the judiciary and legislature. In February 2020 the government conducted National Assembly elections. The election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that the National Assembly elections and the 2018 presidential election took place within a restrictive legislative framework and political environment that prevented genuine competition in the elections.
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 matters. The State Migration Service and the State Border Service are responsible for migration and border enforcement. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were credible reports that members of security forces committed some abuses.
A cease-fire in November 2020 halted 44 days of intensive fighting involving Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Armenia-supported separatists. Sporadic incidents of violence along the undelimited international border between the two countries and some other areas during the year resulted in casualties and detentions. There were credible reports that Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian forces engaged in unlawful killings, torture, and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment during, and in some cases after, the November 2020 fighting. Complaints submitted by Azerbaijan and Armenia to the European Court of Human Rights accusing each other of committing atrocities during the fighting in fall 2020 and summer 2016 awaited the court’s ruling. The government acknowledged holding 41 Armenian detainees, but there were allegations, disputed by the Azerbaijani government, that at least 25 Armenian servicemen disappeared after being taken into Azerbaijani custody. Armenian detainees were not permitted to select their own legal representation during public trials. Since 1995 the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh has been the subject of international mediation by the cochairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group (the United States, France, and Russia).
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killing; torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment by members of the security forces; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; political prisoners; politically motivated reprisal against individuals outside the country; pervasive problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary interference with privacy; serious abuses in conflict, including enforced disappearances, torture, and other physical abuse; serious restrictions on free expression and the media, including violence against journalists, the criminalization of libel and slander, and harassment and incarceration of journalists on questionable charges; serious restrictions on internet freedom, including blocking of websites; a de facto ban on the rights of peaceful assembly and substantial interference with freedom of association; restrictions on freedom of movement; severe restrictions on political participation; systemic government corruption; police brutality against individuals based on sexual orientation; significant restrictions on worker’s freedom of association; and existence of the worst forms of child labor.
The government did not prosecute or punish the majority of officials who committed human rights abuses and acts of corruption; impunity remained a problem.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Credible reports emerged during the year regarding unlawful killings during the fall 2020 intensive fighting between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces (see section 1.g. and the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Armenia).
The Office of the Prosecutor General is empowered to investigate whether killings committed by the security forces were justifiable and to pursue prosecutions.
Reports of arbitrary or unlawful killings in police custody continued. For example, on August 2, 31-year-old Tural Ismayilov died in the Siyazan police department on the day of his arrest. According to official information disseminated by law enforcement agencies, his “health suddenly deteriorated in the police station” and he was taken to a hospital, where he died. Ismayilov’s family, however, alleged police tortured him to death.
There was one report of a temporary disappearance by or on behalf of government authorities. On October 22, Azerbaijan Popular Front Party activist Mutallim Orujov, who was deported from Germany and returned to Azerbaijan on June 1, reportedly was summoned by the State Security Service and disappeared for five days. His lawyer did not learn until October 27 that Orujov had been arrested on October 24.
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 5,000 Azerbaijanis and Armenians remained unaccounted for since the 1990s as a result of the conflict. The State Committee on the Captive and Missing reported that, as of December 2020, there were 3,896 Azerbaijanis registered as missing as a result of the fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the 1990s. Of these, 719 were civilians. The Ministry of Defense reported that as of October 21, there were six Azerbaijani service members missing as a result of the fall 2020 fighting.
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 abuses continued. Most mistreatment took place while detainees were in police custody, where authorities reportedly used abusive methods to coerce confessions. Authorities reportedly denied detainees timely access to family, independent lawyers, or independent medical care. There were credible reports that Azerbaijani forces abused soldiers and civilians held in custody in connection with the conflict in late 2020 (see section 1.g. and the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Armenia).
During the year the government took no action in response to the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) reports on six visits the CPT conducted to the country between 2004 and 2017. In the reports, the CPT stated 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 CPT visited the country in December 2020 and discussed its findings from that visit at the CPT plenary meeting on June 28 to July 2. At year’s end the CPT’s report from the December 2020 visit had not yet been published.
There were several credible reports of torture during the year. For example, the lawyer of Agil Humbatov, a member of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party widely considered a political prisoner (see section 1.e.), stated that Humbatov’s initial testimony was coerced under torture after his arrest on August 11. In addition, Humbatov informed his lawyer that he had been threatened with rape at the Khazar district police department.
Reports continued of torture at the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Main Department for Combating Organized Crime. Persons reportedly tortured included a civil society activist (see section 4), Muslim Unity Movement member Razi Humbatov, and opposition activist Tofig Yagublu. Pictures of Yagublu were widely available on the internet with his eyes swollen shut, apparently from beatings while he was in police detention in December following a small unsanctioned rally in Baku (see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly, and section 3).
On November 1, Khanlar Veliyev, the deputy military prosecutor general, acknowledged that more than 100 persons connected with the 2017 Terter case had been subjected to different forms of physical abuse, including torture, that resulted in the deaths of eight suspects, four of whom were posthumously acquitted. The government prosecuted 17 officials for abuse: nine were sentenced to three and one-half years in prison, six were sentenced to six months, and one received a 10-year prison sentence. Investigators who falsified evidence also were sentenced to prison. In the Terter case, authorities detained a group of approximately 100 servicemen and civilians in 2017, allegedly for spying for Armenia. As of year’s end, 27 remained in prison and were considered political prisoners, some serving sentences of up to 20 years.
On July 21, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a decision that found that from 2009 to 2011, authorities tortured and unlawfully deprived Armenian Artur Badalyan of his liberty. The court ordered the state to pay Badalyan 30,000 euros ($34,500) in damages.
There were numerous credible reports of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in custody. For example, human rights defenders reported that on August 12, imprisoned Muslim Unity Movement deputy Abbas Huseynov was beaten by several prison guards in Prison No. 8.
Authorities reportedly maintained an implicit ban on independent forensic examinations of detainees who claimed abuse. Authorities reportedly also delayed detainees’ access to an attorney. Opposition figures and other activists stated that these practices made it easier for officers to mistreat detainees with impunity. In one example, on April 5, opposition Musavat party member Nizamali Suleymanov and his nephew, Akif Suleymanov, were sentenced to 20 days of administrative arrest for allegedly using drugs. After serving their sentences, they were forced to undergo medical treatment at a drug treatment center for six months. They were released on October 27.
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.
There were reports that the government continued to hold detainees captured after the fall 2020 intensive fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and following the November 2020 cease-fire. There were reports that some detainees from the period prior to the November 2020 cease-fire had been summarily executed (see section 1.g.). Of the 41 Armenians in Azerbaijani detention at year’s end, two Armenians detained during the 2020 fighting were charged with committing crimes during the fighting in the 1990s.
Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, judges were not functionally independent of the executive branch. The judiciary remained largely corrupt and inefficient, and lacked independence. Many verdicts were legally unsupportable and largely unrelated to the evidence presented during a trial, with outcomes frequently appearing predetermined. For example, in October opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party member Niyameddin Ahmedov was sentenced to 13 years in prison on a questionable “terrorist financing” charge. Human rights groups concluded the prosecution lacked credible evidence proving his guilt and the trial was politically motivated. Courts often failed to investigate allegations of torture and inhuman treatment of detainees in police custody.
There also were reports that the government prosecuted Armenian civilians and servicemembers that it took into custody both during the fall 2020 hostilities and following the November 2020 cease-fire in trials that lacked due process (see section 1.g.).
The Ministry of Justice controlled the Judicial Legal Council, which appoints the committee that administers the judicial selection process and examinations and oversees long-term judicial training. The council consists of six judges, a prosecutor, a lawyer, a council representative, a Ministry of Justice representative, and a legal scholar.
Credible reports indicated that judges and prosecutors took instructions from the Presidential Administration and the Justice Ministry, particularly in politically sensitive cases. There were also credible allegations that judges routinely accepted bribes.
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 (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom), particularly those of foreigners, prominent youth who were active online, and some political and business figures, activists, and persons engaged in international communication. Human rights lawyers asserted the postal service purposely lost or misplaced communications with the ECHR to inhibit proceedings against the government.
Throughout the year some websites and social media sources published leaked videos of virtual meetings and recorded conversations of opposition figures. It was widely believed that government law enforcement or intelligence services were the source of the leaked videos. For example, in March, the day after activist Narmin Shahmarzade was detained with 20 women attempting to stage a rally to raise awareness on domestic violence, doctored files from her smart phone appeared on a Telegram channel entitled, “Shahmarzade’s disclosures,” which included videos purporting to show her engaging in sexual acts. Authorities also allegedly hacked her Facebook profile, changing her profile name to “Shamtutan Narmin” (Slut Narmin). Activists believed government authorities were behind the campaign of intimidation.
There were reports the government punished family members for offenses allegedly committed by their relatives. For example, in March videos were disseminated purporting to show private citizen (and daughter of Jamil Hasanli, an opposition leader in exile) Gunel Hasanli engaged in sexual acts in her own bedroom in an effort to demean her. Hasanli released a statement explaining she had become a “target of such a large-scale (government) operation” when she started dating “Mahir,” a man whom she met online. Mahir was reportedly identified in the sex videos disseminated on Telegram channels that featured Hasanli. Hasanli said the relationship became serious, with Mahir giving her a gold ring and proposing to her. She claimed that Mahir drugged her one day to have one of the videos recorded. He later deleted all evidence of their relationship on her smart phone. Hasanli said she later suffered from severe allergic reactions and went to the hospital several times. She concluded, “The only purpose of abusing my desire to get married and own a nest in such a dirty and disgusting way is to discredit my father Jamil Hasanli, to overshadow his political activity, and this is what hurts me the most. I want to say that my father…had no information about my personal life.” A third sex video was disseminated on Telegram in April.
In contrast with 2020, during the year there were no public reports that authorities fired individuals from jobs or had individuals fired in retaliation for the political or civic activities of family members inside or outside the country.
Killings: Credible reports continued of unlawful killings involving summary executions during the fall 2020 intensive fighting involving Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Armenia-supported separatists (also see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Armenia).
The sides to the conflict submitted complaints to the ECHR accusing each other of committing atrocities. The cases remained pending with the court.
In a March 12 report, Human Rights Watch documented two cases in which detainees died in Azerbaijan captivity a few months earlier. The available evidence indicated that one of the detainees, 44-year-old Arsen Gharakhanyan, was most likely the victim of an unlawful execution. Seen alive in two online videos in January after being detained by Azerbaijani soldiers, Gharakhanyan did not appear in the videos to be wounded. After his body was found on January 18 near the village of Aygestan, Human Rights Watch reported that photographs of the location showed a grave that appeared to be fresh, while his body, which had gunshot entry wounds, did not show any obvious signs of decomposition. According to Human Rights Watch, Armenian forensics experts assessed that he had been shot on January 15, two days after the ECHR had asked the government to provide information on his whereabouts.
According to a joint report released in May by the NGOs the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Truth Hounds, When Embers Burst into Flames – International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law Violations during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, members of Azerbaijan’s armed forces unlawfully executed four captured Armenian combatants and three Armenian civilians. The report also stated that Azerbaijani forces were responsible for the enforced disappearance of at least one Armenian civilian and that another Armenian civilian died due to the conditions of his detention. According to the report, “All nine documented deaths violate the [International Humanitarian Law] prohibition on violence to life and person and constitute grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. The cases further violate…Azerbaijan’s Law concerning the Protection of Civilian Persons and the Rights of Prisoners of War and constitute criminal offences under…Azerbaijan’s Criminal Code. In the absence of lawful justification, these deaths equally constitute gross violations of the right to life under Article 2 of the [European Convention on Human Rights].”
According to multiple Armenian sources, civilians attempting to remain in their homes in territory captured by Azerbaijan were taken into custody or killed, including elderly civilians who had no weapons. On August 10, the Washington, D.C.-based Armenian Legal Center for Justice and Human Rights in partnership with Armenia’s International and Comparative Law Center announced that it had filed cases with the ECHR regarding 19 Armenians killed in 10 separate incidents while in the custody of Azerbaijani forces or in prison in Azerbaijan.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: In a March 12 report, Human Rights Watch documented several cases from September 2020 through early January 2021 in which Azerbaijani forces used violence to detain civilians and subjected them to torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Among the cases cited by Human Rights Watch was that of Sasha Gharakhanyan, a 71-year-old ethnic Armenian civilian and the father of Arsen Gharakhanyan, both of whom were captured in October 2020 in Hadrut. In November 2020 a video began circulating on social media with Azerbaijani soldiers shown forcing Sasha to kiss the Azerbaijani flag and repeat “Karabakh is Azerbaijan.” In December Azerbaijan returned him to Armenia as part of a group of 44 detainees. He spent the next 10 days in the hospital. Sasha Gharakhanyan’s wrists and ankles were deeply scarred from having been tightly bound with wire, and he had scars on the back of his head, where he said a soldier had hit him several times with a rifle butt, as well as on his back from being poked with a metal rod. X-rays showed that one of his ribs was fractured and that he had a broken nose.
Human Rights Watch assessed that the willful killing and mistreatment of Armenians detained by Azerbaijani forces constituted “war crimes under international humanitarian law.”
On March 19, Human Rights Watch reported that Azerbaijani forces abused Armenian “prisoners of war” captured during the 2020 intensive fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, subjecting them to torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, including punishment when they were captured, during their transfer, or while in custody at various detention facilities. The facilities included three in Baku: the Military Police detention facility, the National Security Ministry Detention Facility, and pretrial Detention Facility #1 in Baku’s Kurdakhani settlement. Human Rights Watch characterized the abuse as torture and “a war crime” and noted Azerbaijan’s failure to account for the fate of missing Armenian soldiers last seen in Azerbaijani custody. Human Rights Watch reported it examined and verified more than 20 videos of Azerbaijani forces apparently mistreating Armenian servicemen in their custody. The verification process included interviews with recently repatriated detainees and family members of servicemen who appeared in the videos but had not returned at the time of the report.
Human Rights Watch also reviewed medical documents and reported that repatriated detainees all described prolonged and repeated beatings. One described being prodded with a sharp metal rod, another said he was subjected to electric shocks, and a third person stated he was burned repeatedly with a cigarette lighter. The men reported they were given very little water and little to no food in the initial days of their detention.
Using satellite images, researchers from several organizations reported destruction of two Armenian cemeteries in the newly returned territories after the cessation of the 2020 hostilities. Caucasus Heritage Watch, a research initiative led by archaeologists at Cornell and Purdue Universities, published photographs from June 2020 and April 8, 2021, showing the complete demolition of the Boyuk Taglar (Mets Tagher) cemetery in Khojavend District. Other researchers further confirmed the destruction via Google Earth images from June 2020 and August 2021. Analysis of Google Earth images by open-source investigator Alexander McKeever supported this conclusion. Caucasus Heritage Watch also published satellite photographs from September 2020 and April 12 and June 18, 2021, that showed the complete destruction of the Sighnaq (Sghnakh) cemetery in the Khojaly region.
In late 2020 authorities arrested four soldiers for desecrating bodies and grave sites; during the year the government did not release updates regarding the status of their cases.
Multiple videos, eyewitness testimony, and other evidence strongly suggested that at least 25 Armenian servicemen disappeared after having been taken into custody by Azerbaijani forces during or after the fall 2020 fighting. For example, two videos showed Azerbaijani soldiers questioning Arsen Karapetyan and Norik Arakelyan while in detention. Separate applications were submitted to the ECHR on their behalf, asking the court to apply urgent measures to protect their right to life and right to be free from inhuman treatment. The court granted requests for an interim measure and invited Azerbaijan to specify if the individuals were known to the authorities, whether they were under Azerbaijani control and, if so, how they were treated. In response, the Azerbaijan government stated it was unable to identify the men.
In another example, several repatriated Armenian servicemen reported having seen Alexander Yeghiazaryan in Baku. As of year’s end, the government had not acknowledged holding Yeghiazaryan, Karapetyan, or Arakelyan. The government stated it returned some of the individuals deemed missing, disputed that videos depicting the detention of missing Armenians were taken in Azerbaijan, and said it was investigating other cases of missing persons.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: In their May report, When Embers Burst into Flames – International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law Violations during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, the NGOs IPHR and Truth Hounds reported that Azerbaijani armed forces “appear to have deliberately targeted Armenian hospitals, medical transport, and medical personnel in at least five documented incidents” during the fall 2020 fighting. According to the report, “On the face of it, the documented incidents constitute deliberate targeted attacks on hospitals and medical transport. The incidents require immediate and thorough investigation by relevant authorities. If the incidents are confirmed as deliberate attacks on protected objects, this would constitute a serious violation of [International Humanitarian Law].…”
Reportedly, some Armenian servicemen detained by Azerbaijan were not permitted detainee visits from nor allowed to communicate with their families until February, months after they were taken captive.
The government prosecuted detained Armenian civilians and servicemen in public trials that lacked elements of due process such as the right to choose one’s own legal counsel. Azerbaijani authorities reportedly took dual Lebanese-Armenian citizen Viken Euljekian into custody in November along with another Lebanese-Armenian, Maral Najarian. Najarian was released after spending four months in an Azerbaijani jail. Authorities released a video of Euljekian confessing, under apparent duress, that he had fought as a mercenary for $2,500. In a rapid trial in which he was not permitted a lawyer of his own choosing, Euljekian reportedly was convicted of participating in a military conflict as a mercenary, terrorism committed by an organized group, and illegal crossing of a state border; he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Court proceedings in the case of civilians Gevorg Sujyan and Davit Davtyan similarly violated due process by failing to provide them with independent legal counsel of their own choosing; compelling both to testify against themselves or confess guilt; and not allowing them to call and examine their own witnesses. They were convicted of espionage and illegal border crossing and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Azerbaijan reportedly tried 54 of the 62 Armenian servicemen it captured near Hadrut in December 2020. The group claimed that they had been issued weapons and “sent to protect the border” on November 27, following the November 9 cease-fire. The servicemen were charged individually with illegal border crossing, illegal possession of weapons, participating in an illegal group, and terrorism (for killing four Azerbaijani soldiers weeks after the cease-fire). The men were assigned public defenders; none were permitted to hire their own attorneys. Several stated that they had not seen the attorney representing them before meeting them in the courtroom during the trial and were not provided relevant documents. Some persons captured with this group were returned to Armenia without a conviction, a few were repatriated while their trials were underway, and some were repatriated after six months when they were released for time served. The sentences for the 38 men who remained in custody reportedly ranged from four to six years. Convicted servicemen repatriated to Armenia after “time served” were not provided with documentation related to their convictions.
There were reported cases of individuals who allegedly should have been released under the terms of the November 2020 cease-fire but who were instead incarcerated. In one such case, the authorities put on trial two individuals – Alyosha Khosrovyan and Ludwig Mkrtchyan – who were captured before the November 2020 cease-fire arrangement. The terms of the cease-fire arrangement publicly committed all parties to exchange prisoners of war, hostages, and other detained persons. Captured in October 2020, Khosrovyan and Mkrtchyan were convicted and sentenced on August 2 to 20 years in prison for alleged “war crimes” committed during fighting in the 1990s.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
While the law provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media and specifically prohibits press censorship, the government habitually violated these rights. The government limited freedom of expression and media independence. Journalists, editors, and independent bloggers faced intimidation and at times were beaten and imprisoned. In addition, there were suspicious acts of violence outside the country (see section 1.e., Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country). During the year authorities continued to pressure media outlets, journalists, bloggers, and activists in the country and in exile, including their relatives, to refrain from criticizing the government.
Freedom of Expression: Although the constitution provides for freedom of expression, the government continued to repress or attempt to intimidate persons it considered political opponents or critics. The incarceration of such persons raised concerns regarding authorities’ abuse of the judicial system to punish dissent. As of December 10, human rights defenders considered five incarcerated journalists and bloggers to be political prisoners or detainees. A number of incarcerations were widely seen as connected to the exercise of freedom of expression.
Examples of attempts by authorities to intimidate individuals they considered to be government critics included repeated harassing text messages and images on the smart phones of selected activists, including Bakhtiyar Hajiyev. In Hajiyev’s case, the messages included threats to his life. Activists targeted for such harassment considered government authorities responsible based on the software platforms utilized for harassment and the significant financial requirements to carry out such harassment. Another indicator that authorities were involved in this harassment was the visible reluctance of law enforcement bodies to investigate these cases. The constitution prohibits hate speech, defined as “propaganda provoking racial, national, religious, and social discord and animosity” as well as “hostility and other criteria.” Propaganda, slander, and hate speech, however, were used against opposition leaders, bloggers, independent journalists, and dissidents with impunity.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the 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 and semi-independent online media outlets expressed a wide variety of views on government policies, but authorities pressured them in various ways for doing so. The International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) 2021 Vibrant Information Barometer noted that in 2020, media in the country stagnated or deteriorated due to COVID-19-related restrictions and the intensive fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. According to the report, “During the 44 days of active fighting, internet speeds were regulated for security reasons, limiting access to news; media critical of the government were selectively blocked. Social media platforms remain the only space where freedom of expression can be observed; however, there is a high degree of self-censorship to avoid punishment on sensitive topics. Low media literacy, hate speech, and/or extreme nationalism clashing with the handful of progressive/liberal views still exist.” Journalists needed accreditation to work during the pandemic, but some independent news outlets said they had difficulty obtaining the necessary paperwork, according to the NGO Reporters Without Borders.
Authorities continued exerting pressure on major media rights organizations and independent media outlets outside the country, as well as on individuals in the country associated with those outlets. Foreign media outlets, including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), were banned in 2009 and remained prohibited from broadcasting on FM radio frequencies. The Russian service Sputnik, which was also originally prohibited from broadcasting, was later allowed to freely broadcast news. Censorship of press websites, restricted visas, and outright bans for those journalists critical of the country’s human rights record continued for foreign outlets and foreign journalists.
In late December the National Assembly rushed approval of a new media law, ignoring the input of civil society, independent journalists, and the international community. The law was awaiting President Aliyev’s signature at year’s end.
Violence and Harassment: During the year police occasionally used force and other methods against journalists and bloggers to prevent their professional activities and limit press freedom. Local observers reported that journalists from independent media outlets were subjected to harassment and cyberattacks. The harassment mainly targeted journalists from Radio Liberty, Azadliq and other opposition and semi-independent newspapers, as well as Meydan TV, Obyektiv Television, and Mikroskop Media. For example, journalists Nargiz Absalamova and Ulviyya Ali reported that on August 6, police punched and insulted them and broke their equipment while the two were covering a peaceful protest. Civil society activists continued to call on the government to conduct effective investigations of the high-profile killings of journalists Rasim Aliyev in 2015, Rafiq Tagi in 2011, and Elmar Huseynov in 2005.
Most local media outlets relied on the patronage of individuals close to the government or the Media Development Agency for income. Those not benefitting from such support experienced financial difficulties, such as problems paying wages, taxes, and periodic court fines.
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. Foreign radio stations were generally banned from direct broadcast.
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. Libel and slander laws were routinely used to silence government critics, including accredited journalists and bloggers. For example, on March 2, the Sheki Court of Appeal sentenced bloggers Elchin Hasanzade and Ibrahim Salamov Turksoy to eight months in prison. In November 2020 both bloggers were found guilty of alleged “slander” and “insult” and sentenced to six months of correctional labor by the Mingachevir City Court. Human rights activists attributed the bloggers’ arrests as retribution for having publicized alleged corruption by Mingachevir authorities.
National Security: On February 15, the Baku Court of Appeals upheld the November 2020 conviction of Polad Aslanov, the editor in chief of the Xeberman.com and Press-az.com news websites for alleged espionage on behalf of Iran. Aslanov was 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 provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government restricted these rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
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.
Foreign Travel: Authorities continued to prevent a number of opposition figures, activists, and journalists from traveling outside the country. For example, Azerbaijan Popular Front Party chairperson Ali Kerimli had been prohibited from traveling since 2006. 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 Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported 653,921 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 in conditions for refugees, including access to public education and the legal right to work, 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: Since 2019 all asylum seekers have had access to asylum procedures. Additionally, since 2020 all refugees under UNHCR’s mandate also have had legal access to the labor market and were covered by the national health services (including free Covid vaccination) on par with Azerbaijani nationals. All of these persons of concern, however, still lack a formal legal status.
Temporary Protection: The government did not provide temporary protection to asylum seekers during the year. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, authorities did not return rejected asylum seekers to their countries of origin and extended their stay in the country.
According to UNHCR statistics, there were 3,585 persons, per Azerbaijan’s 2009 census, in the country under UNHCR’s statelessness mandate. According to UNHCR, there were 88 persons registered as at risk of statelessness during the year. Of these 88 persons, 10 were able to receive Azerbaijani citizenship or restore their documents. By the end of November, 78 individuals were awaiting legal proceedings. 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. The State Migration Service received 737 applications from foreigners and stateless persons (762 including children) requesting Azerbaijani citizenship. Citizenship was granted to 577 foreigners and stateless persons (596 including children).
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 education, but not employment.
According to the national legislation, stateless persons have access to all rights and services available to the citizens and foreigners in the country except certain rights that are limited to citizens only. However, according to UNHCR, these rights and services were accessible to only those documented with Azerbaijani government statelessness identity cards (IDs) or UNHCR protection documents. Those who lacked any ID documents also lacked access to basic rights, especially because of the expansion of the country’s electronic governance system. As one example, in order to access a health facility, a stateless person must have an ID document with PIN code to be able to get vaccinated or benefit from the mandatory health insurance.
The constitution allows citizenship to be removed “as provided by law.” There were two cases in which citizenship was removed during the year when the individuals obtained citizenship of other countries.