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 six journalists and bloggers to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end, including Afgan Mukhtarli (see section 1.e. and 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, on June 12, the State Security Service arrested the editor in chief of the Xeberman.com and Press-az.com websites, Polad Aslanov, on charges of treason. 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. Aslanov remained in the pretrial detention facility of the State Security Service at year’s end.
Other such examples included opposition Popular Front Party youth activist Orkhan Bakhishli. Bakhishli was arrested in May 2018 four days after giving a speech holding President Aliyev responsible for journalist Elmar Huseynov’s 2005 killing. He was sentenced to six years in prison in September 2018 for alleged blackmail and extortion. On June 3, the Supreme Court reduced his sentence to three years.
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 June 25, opposition Popular Front Party member Eldaniz Agayev was sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention after criticizing the government in social media. Authorities also attempted to impede criticism by opening disciplinary proceedings against lawyers to intimidate them from speaking with the media, as the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, noted on July 12.
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. The 2019 International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) Media Sustainability Index stated that “access to independent news sources in Azerbaijan gets more limited from year to year” and that “there is no independent print media in the country.”
Journalists reported that, following their coverage of the October 19 police operation, they were summoned to police precincts. Not all journalists responded to the summons, but those who did noted they were intimidated and made to justify their coverage before being released.
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, 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.
Violence and Harassment: Sometimes police used force against journalists and prevented their professional activities. According to the Index on Censorship project, at least three journalists sustained minor injuries from police during an attempted unsanctioned opposition rally in downtown Baku on October 19, and one journalist, Nurlan Gahramanli, was beaten by officers in a police car after being detained.
Local observers reported that journalists from independent media outlets were subject to harassment and cyberattacks during the year. The harassment 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 attacks on journalists, and such cases often went unsolved. Civil society activists continued to call on the government to effectively investigate the high-profile killings of journalists in 2015 (Rasim Aliyev), 2011 (Rafiq Tagi), and 2005 (Elmar Huseynov).
Lawsuits believed to be politically motivated were used to intimidate journalists and media outlets. On February 25, the Baku Court of Grave Crimes conditionally sentenced the editor in chief of Bastainfo.com, Mustafa Hajibeyli, to five and one-half years in prison with two years’ probation on charges of calls against the state, abuse of power, and forgery after republishing articles covering the July 2018 unrest in the city of Ganja. On March 18, Criminal.az editor Anar Mammadov received the same sentence. Both journalists asserted the charges against them were false and meant to intimidate them and others from independent journalistic activity.
Most locally based media outlets relied on the patronage of individuals close to the government 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 outlets 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. The law imposes a fine for libel of 1,000 to 1,500 manat ($590 to $880); the fine for slander is 1,000 to 2,000 manat ($590 to $1,180). Insulting the president is punishable by up to two years’ corrective labor or up to three years’ imprisonment.
The authorities continued to block independent media websites that offered views that differed from government narratives and to incarcerate persons who expressed critical views online. Human rights defenders reported that individuals were regularly summoned to police stations across the country and forced to delete social media posts that were critical of the government and threatened with various punishments if they did not comply.
The 2019 IREX Media Sustainability Index reported that in 2018 the number of blocked websites blocked for some period of time reached 85, compared with 25 in 2017. The websites of 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.
Activists asserted authorities conducted cyberattacks and used other measures and proxies to disrupt internet television programs. For example, on April 21, progovernment REAL TV threatened to release intimate photographs of expatriate journalist Sevinj Osmangizi unless she stopped her online television program. Osmangizi also stated that the government intercepted her digital communications with other Azerbaijani expatriates. Activists and journalists also suspected the government was behind the hacking of social media accounts. On January 20, the Facebook page of Ali Kerimli, chairman of the opposition Popular Front Party, was hacked and all posts since 2017 were deleted. In November hackers took control of National Council member Gultekin Hajibeyli’s Facebook account for the second time since June 2018, blocking more than 30,000 of her followers. Following both hacks, Hajibeyli lost 130,000 of her 200,000 followers.
On June 12, the Baku Court of Grave Crimes charged the editor of the realliq.info website, Ikram Rahimov, with extortion of money and sentenced him to five years and six months in prison. Rahimov stated the case was punishment for his public criticism of then presidential assistant Ali Hasanov.
The government 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 indicators 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 2018 through May showed a further reduction in internet freedom in the country. As a result, Freedom House downgraded the country’s status from “partly free” to “not free.” The report stated that the government blocked access to additional news websites and intensified cyberattacks against activists and journalists; and prosecuted online journalists and ordinary social media users, while noting the release of some who had been incarcerated in connection with their online activities.
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 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 fail to follow a court order (including failure to pay a fine) may include fines of 500 to 1,000 manat ($295 to $590) 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 as unconstitutional.
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 up to 30 days of administrative detention. For example, following an approved opposition-planned rally in support of the release of blogger Mehman Huseynov and other political prisoners on January 19, authorities detained and sentenced 31 individuals to periods of administrative detention ranging from 10 to 30 days for participating in the planning and execution of the event. Activists asserted the authorities illegally identified thousands of rally participants through facial recognition software and private cell phone data that police then used to threaten them not to associate with the political opposition.
Following the January 19 rally, authorities denied all opposition applications for public demonstrations until September 26, when the Baku mayor’s office authorized a rally in Lokbatan, a site located on the outskirts of the city and unreachable by mass transit. The Baku mayor’s office then allowed the opposition to conduct a “picket” in front of its building on October 8 to protest the unsuitability of the Lokbatan site. Police dispersed the picket when more people than expected showed up to observe.
Opposition leaders called for an unsanctioned October 19 demonstration in the Baku city center after their application was again approved only for the remote Lokbatan site. In response authorities launched a massive police operation to prevent the demonstration, during which the internet was turned off in much of Baku and a large segment of the city center was closed to vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Media outlets showed numerous examples of police detaining individuals who were not engaged in protest activity as well as examples of police punching, kicking, and committing other abuses on individuals who were already subdued. Opposition Popular Front Party chairman Ali Kerimli was violently taken into custody. He later reported he was placed in a bus where he was severely beaten by police who were seeking to record a video of him apologizing for political activities, and subsequently choked and beaten unconscious while in police custody. Opposition National Council of Democratic Forces board member Tofig Yagoblu was also taken into custody and sentenced to administrative detention. His family members reported that, after being taken to a Baku police station, he was similarly brutally beaten by police officers who also sought to record him repudiating the opposition. He reportedly suffered a broken rib during his beating. In a November 7 appeal, 21 civil society representatives called on the UN Committee against Torture and the CPT to investigate these and other cases of what they described as politically motivated torture. At least 100 individuals were detained during the October 19 operation, approximately 40 of whom were sentenced to administrative detention.
Opposition leaders again applied for permission to hold a rally on November 2 and again received permission only for the Lokbatan site. After initially calling for members to again attempt to gather in the city center, they canceled the unauthorized rally after credible threats of a higher level of police violence. Earlier that week the progovernment media outlet haqqin.az published an article stating the police would show less restraint than on October 19, and the nationalist “self-sacrificer” group, headed by Fuad Muradov and reputed to have close links to security services, called opposition leaders and threatened the life of Ali Kerimli should the demonstration occur.
Police summoned more than 100 members of the opposition Musavat Party around the country to police stations and warned them not to participate in a planned unsanctioned picket scheduled for November 12 in front of the Baku Executive Authority. On November 12, police prevented the picket from taking place, including by deploying large numbers of officers blocking roads and detaining dozens of party members who attempted to assemble. The government released those who had tried to gather after several hours, with the exception of one organizer who was sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention.
The government also disrupted events organized by opposition groups. For example, on June 28, police interrupted a fundraising event organized to pay fines for opposition activists at the Baku office of the Musavat Party. Police took Popular Front Party chairman Ali Kerimli into custody from the event and took him to the Binagadi Police Station, where he was warned and then released.
Police also restricted freedom of assembly for events not associated with the opposition. For example, on March 8 and October 20, Baku police roughly dispersed women who had gathered to protest violence against women.
On September 10, Baku municipal authorities announced the closure of Mehsul Stadium, the only location in recent years the government had approved for public demonstrations by the political opposition, for renovation and repurposing as a fitness park. Opposition activists and others stated the project was a pretext for further restrictions on freedom of assembly.
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.
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 the ability to provide grants to unregistered local groups or individual heads of such organizations.
In 2017 the Cabinet of Ministers issued regulations for establishing a “single window” mechanism to streamline the grant registration process. Under the procedures, grant registration processes for multiple agencies are merged. The 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 that authorize it to conduct inspections of NGOs with few provisions protecting their rights and provide the potential of harsh 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. As a result, the bank accounts of the American Bar Association, IREX, and Democracy and Human Rights Resource Center remained frozen and the organizations were unable to operate.
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, one foreign NGO had been able to register under these rules.
NGO representatives stated the Ministry of Justice did not act on applications they submitted, particularly those from individuals or organizations working on issues 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.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
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.
Foreign Travel: While authorities lifted the travel bans of several opposition figures, lawyers, and journalists during the year, travel bans on others remained. Those whose travel bans were lifted included opposition Republican Alternative (REAL) Party chairman Ilgar Mammadov, former REAL Party Assembly head Azer Gasimli, 11 freelance journalists who worked with Meydan TV, and human rights lawyers Asabali Mustafayev and Emin Aslan.
Authorities continued, however, to prevent a number of other opposition figures, activists, and journalists from traveling outside the country. Examples included Popular Front Party chairman Ali Kerimli (banned from traveling since 2006), investigative journalist and activist Khadija Ismayilova, journalist Shahvalad Chobanoglu, 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 but given suspended sentences were not permitted to travel abroad until the terms of their suspended sentences had been met.
The government reported 651,458 registered internally displaced persons (IDPs). 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 stated the government did not adequately promote the integration of IDPs into society.
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.
Refoulement: There were no reports of refoulement, unlike in 2018, when the press reported that Turkish citizens were transferred without due process from Azerbaijan to Turkey, where they were detained by Turkish authorities who alleged they were followers of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.
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 1,120 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 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 year’s end. 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 stripped 95 persons of citizenship. In October 2018 the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights published a 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.”