a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
While the law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and specifically prohibits press censorship, the government habitually violated these rights. The government limited freedom of expression and media independence. Journalists faced intimidation and at times were beaten and imprisoned. Human rights defenders considered at least 10 journalists and bloggers to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end. 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. The incarceration of such persons raised concerns about authorities’ abuse of the judicial system to punish dissent. In a September joint report, three NGOs stated, “Azerbaijan continues to use its legal and criminal justice system to keep tight control over public space and silent critical voices.” 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 the case of Mehman Huseynov (see section 1.c.), incarcerations included Afgan Mukhtarli, a freelance journalist and activist living in exile in Georgia, who was reportedly abducted from Georgia May 29, forcibly rendered to Azerbaijan (see section 5), and immediately arrested. Authorities charged Mukhtarli with illegally crossing the border, smuggling, and resistance to law enforcement activities (see the Country Reports on Human Rights for Georgia).
Immediately following Mukhtarli’s arrest in Azerbaijan, the heads of Georgia’s and Azerbaijan’s security services claimed Mukhtarli had voluntarily crossed the border into Azerbaijan. Mukhtarli, his wife, and other Azerbaijani activists and journalists disputed this claim. His lawyers stated he was physically abused while in detention (see section 1.c.).
A number of other incarcerations were widely viewed as related to freedom of expression. For example, on June 16, the court convicted Popular Front Party activist Fuad Ahmadli of allegedly illegally disclosing private client information of a mobile operator. On July 24, Faig Amirli, the financial director of opposition newspaper Azadliq, who was also the assistant to Popular Front Party chair Ali Kerimli, was sentenced to three years and three months and fined 39,000 manat ($22,800) for alleged tax evasion. While upholding Amirli’s conviction, the court ordered his conditional release from confinement at his September 15 appeal hearing. In 2016 Ahmadli and Amirli, despite their secular orientation, were arrested for alleged ties with Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey accused of organizing the failed coup attempt in that country.
In addition to imprisonment, the government attempted to impede criticism through other measures. For example, in early October authorities reportedly granted N!DA activist Ulvi Hasanli a medical exemption from mandatory military service until 2019, but later that month they removed the exemption and forcibly conscripted him. In an example of other methods of intimidation, following a public discussion on October 15, activists reported approximately 40 uniformed and plainclothes police prevented a press conference to discuss political prisoners in the country.
Press and Media Freedom: A number of opposition and independent print and online media outlets expressed a wide variety of views on government policies, but authorities penalized them in various ways for doing so.
Human rights defenders considered at least 10 journalists and bloggers and two writers or poets to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end. 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.
Following the 2016 halt of the newspaper Azadliq’s print edition after the arrest of its financial director, no significant opposition publications remained in the country.
On May 12, in response to a suit brought by the Ministry of Transportation, Communication, and High Technologies, the Sabayil District Court blocked access to the Azerbaijani-language versions of RFE/RL and other independent media outlets, including the websites of Azadliq, Azerbaycan Saati, Meydan TV, and Turan.
During the year authorities continued pressure on 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. Prosecutors combined the criminal cases against Afgan Mukhtarli and Meydan TV.
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 said impunity for assaults against journalists remained a problem and that the majority of physical attacks on journalists were not effectively investigated and went unsolved. There were no indications authorities held police officers accountable for physical assaults on journalists in prior years.
Journalists and media rights leaders 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 suspected of being politically motivated were used to intimidate journalists and media outlets. In one example, the Ministry of Taxation opened a criminal case against the Turan Information Agency in August. On August 24, authorities detained the director of the agency, Mehman Aliyev, conditionally releasing him on September 11. On November 2, the charges against Turan apparently were dropped.
The majority of independent and opposition media outlets remained in a precarious financial situation and experienced problems paying wages, taxes, and periodic court fines. Most relied on political parties, influential sponsors, or the State Media Fund for financing.
The government continued to prohibit some state libraries from subscribing to opposition and independent newspapers, prevented state businesses from buying advertising in opposition newspapers, and put pressure on private businesses not to advertise in them. As a result, paid advertising was largely absent in opposition and independent media. Political commentators noted these practices reduced the wages that opposition and independent outlets could pay to their journalists, which allowed progovernment outlets to hire away quality staff. In addition, international media-monitoring reports indicated that intimidation by Ministry of Taxation authorities further limited the independence of the media.
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.
During the year authorities did not return work confiscated in June 2016 from the Ganun Publishing House in Baku. At the time, civil society activists reported authorities raided the publishing house after it printed posters advocating the release of imprisoned head of the REAL democratic movement, Ilgar Mammadov. The director of the publishing house, Shahbaz Khuduoghlu, reported police took some published materials and printing molds from the office.
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. On May 31, 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 only punishment of up to two years’ corrective labor or up to three years’ imprisonment.
Libel laws were employed against journalists. For example, on March 3, a Baku city court sentenced blogger Mehman Huseynov to two years’ imprisonment for libel after publicly stating he was tortured by police.
The websites of Voice of America, RFE/RL, and Germany-based media outlet Meydan TV were blocked at the beginning of the year, reportedly on the orders of government authorities. On May 12, at the request of the Ministry of Transportation, Communication, and High Technologies, the Sabayil District Court blocked access to the Azerbaijani-language version of RFE/RL and other independent media outlets, including the websites of Azadliq, Azerbaycan Saati, Meydan TV, and Turan.
On May 2, Aziz Orucov, director of the internet television station Kanal 13, was arrested and sentenced to administrative detention. The General Prosecutor’s Office subsequently opened a criminal case against Orucov for alleged tax evasion and abuse of office. On December 15, a court convicted Orucov of these charges and sentenced him to six years’ imprisonment
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 democracy activists. For example, members of the Popular Front Party reported being harassed by police and forced to delete critical Facebook posts under threat of physical abuse. During the year youth activists were questioned, detained, and frequently sentenced to administrative detention for posting criticism of government corruption and commenting on human rights abuses online.
The Freedom House annual Freedom on the Net report, covering the period from June 2016 through May 2017, stated, “Internet freedom declined in Azerbaijan in the past year” and that “the space for free expression online continued to shrink.” The report also noted that, while in previous years the government refrained from extensive blocking, the past year saw more website restrictions.
According to International Telecommunication Union statistics, approximately 78 percent of the country’s population used the internet in 2016.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The government on occasion restricted academic freedom. Opposition party members reported difficulty finding teaching jobs at schools and universities.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government restricted these rights.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The government severely restricted freedom of peaceful assembly. Authorities at times responded to peaceful protests and assemblies by using force and detaining protesters. The law permits administrative detention for up to three months for misdemeanors and up to one month for resisting police. Punishment for those who fail 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 found the requirements unacceptable and unconstitutional. Authorities throughout the country routinely ignored applications for public rallies, effectively denying the freedom to assemble.
As modified by the September 2016 referendum, the constitution provides that public gatherings not disrupt “public order and public morals.” The Venice Commission’s September 2016 preliminary opinion on the proposed constitutional amendments noted it is “almost inevitable” that peaceful gatherings may disrupt public order (for example, by disturbing traffic) or disturb someone’s views on morality and yet be permissible under the European Convention on Human Rights. The commission concluded, “The State should allow such gatherings and even facilitate them provided that those disturbances are not excessive and help convey the message of the public event.”
Activists reported police harassed and/or detained approximately 200 persons before, during, and after authorized rallies on September 28, October 7, and October 28 against corruption and the situation of political prisoners in the country. The courts sentenced 15 opposition activists to administrative detention ranging from 10 to 30 days, allegedly for resisting police. Activists and media reported individuals were fired by the Ministries of Education and Health and informed the reason for their termination was participation in the opposition rallies. Party representatives stated the government approved the rallies to pantomime freedom of assembly for a Western audience but punished participants to send the message to the populace that public dissent would not be tolerated.
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. Authorities routinely rejected the registration applications of NGOs whose names contained the words “human rights,” “democracy,” “institute,” and “society.”
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 for 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 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.
Based on extensive authority provided in the 2014 amendments, the Ministry of Justice adopted new rules on monitoring NGO activities in February 2016. The rules authorize the ministry to conduct inspections of NGOs, with few provisions protecting the rights of NGOs and the potential of harsh fines if they do not cooperate.
The far-reaching investigation opened by the Prosecutor’s Office in 2014 into the activities of numerous domestic and international NGOs and local leadership continued 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 banned 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. Some experts estimated up to 1,000 NGOs remained unregistered.
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 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), investigative journalist and activist Khadija Ismayilova, lawyers Intigam Aliyev and Asabali Mustafayev, and at least 15 freelance journalists who filed material with Meydan TV. Authorities lifted the travel ban on opposition REAL executive secretary Natig Jafarli after the prosecution dropped a criminal case for tax evasion and abuse of office against him on August 28; a travel ban remained on REAL board member Azer Gasimli.
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)
UNHCR reported 612,785 registered IDPs in the country, including persons in IDP-like situations, as of year’s end. The vast majority fled their homes between 1988 and 1993 as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
IDPs were initially required to register their places of residence with authorities and could live only in approved areas. This “propiska” registration system, which formally ceased to exist after the breakup of the Soviet Union, was enforced mainly against persons who were forced from their homes after separatists, with Armenia’s support, took control of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories. The government asserted that registration was needed to keep track of IDPs to assist them.
Significant numbers of IDPs remained in overcrowded collective centers, where they reported feeling socially marginalized and faced limited employment opportunities and high rates of poverty. The law requires IDPs to register in the districts where they reside, and registration is necessary to obtain IDP status. Temporary registration where IDPs reside does not restrict migration within the country.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
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 1,193 refugees in the country lacked access to social services. The Ministry of Education reported that 88,019 IDP students studied in 598 schools relocated from occupied regions across 34 regions of the country during the 2016-17 academic year. Many IDP and refugee children also enrolled at ordinary schools in numerous regions throughout the country.
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, 573 foreigners and stateless persons were granted citizenship in 2017. 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. 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.
Amendments to the constitution adopted by referendum in September 2016 allow citizenship to be removed “as provided by law.” Previously, the constitution explicitly prohibited the loss of citizenship. As of September 2017, the government had stripped 151 persons of citizenship for their alleged affiliation with terrorist organizations.