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, 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.
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/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
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.”