Baku ‘clamps down’ on dissent ahead of polls

Baku ‘clamps down’ on dissent ahead of polls

Baku ‘clamps down’ on dissent ahead of polls

Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev (L) and his Russian counterpart Putin (R) walk in Baku in this August photo. A new report said authorities in the oil-rich state have jailed journalists and dozens of opposition activists on ‘trumped-up’ charges and passed tough new legislation to curb freedom of expression. AFP photo

Azerbaijan has intensified a crackdown on activists and journalists to stifle criticism of long-term leader Ilham Aliyev before presidential elections in October, campaign group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Sept.2.

Authorities have arrested dozens on trumped-up charges, dispersed anti-government rallies and adopted laws curbing freedom of speech and assembly in the past 18 months, the organization said in a report.

Azeri authorities could not be immediately reached for comment, but Baku has repeatedly denied abusing human rights in the past. “Prosecuting people who criticize the authorities and report on issues of public interest is a cynical and transparent attempt to stifle government critics,” HRW researcher Giorgi Gogia said.

The European Union and other bodies in June accused the ex-Soviet state of tightening curbs on free expression by making defamation over the Internet a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment.

Youth activists targeted

HRW said authorities had in particular targeted youth activists critical of the authorities on social networks. Several members of opposition youth movement NIDA were arrested earlier this year accused of plans to instigate violence during protests, and a number of journalists and rights workers were detained on fake charges, it said.

“The authorities have used a range of trumped-up criminal charges, including narcotics and weapons possession, hooliganism, incitement, and treason to lock up these critics.”

According to the report, Azeri authorities have also increased fines for unsanctioned protests by up to 100 times and expanded from 15 to 60 the maximum prison term for public order misdemeanors often used to jail protestors.

Western powers are generally critical of Azeri human rights violations, the report said, but the reported abuse has not had a major impact on their relations with Baku. “That is perhaps due to Azerbaijan’s geostrategic importance and hydrocarbon resources,” HRW said.

 The country has been courted by Western powers because of its role as an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas to Europe.

Aliyev, 51, is almost certain to win the upcoming October polls in a tightly controlled political system, despite mounting opposition from Azeris tired of his rule. Vote monitoring groups have previously criticized the democratic credential of ballots in the country over the past decade.

Ibragimbekov barred

Authorities blocked last week the country’s main opposition candidate from challenging strongman Aliyev in October elections. The election commission said Oscar-winning screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov had been barred from standing in the autumn polls because of his dual Russian-Azerbaijan citizenship.

Ibragimbekov, who co-authored the Oscar-winning 1994 film “Burnt by the Sun” with Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov, had been put forward as a united candidate by a coalition of Azerbaijan’s main opposition parties. The coalition had picked Jamil Hasanli, a former lawmaker and historian, as a back-up candidate should Ibragimbekov be refused permission to run.