Azerbaijan took an important step forward for freedom of expression in late December when President Ilham Aliyev pardoned and released 86 prisoners, including at least two prominent reporters and one blogger known for critical reporting against the government, and several human rights activists. The reporters had all been arrested and imprisoned on suspect charges including hooliganism, resisting arrest, and drug possession. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe hailed the release, and called on Baku to free all journalists currently behind bars.
“I hope this commendable step to release Anar Bayramli, Aydin Janiyev and Taleh Khasmammadov will be followed by more action. All journalists in detention should be released,” said Dunja Mijatović, OSCE representative for Media Freedom in Baku. Mijatović added that the OSCE believed the move could “help create a better environment for journalists.”
Aliyev’s government has been on what Opposition activists describes as a systematic campaign of repression against opposition figures in recent years, which reached its peak around the Eurovision song contest, held in Baku this past May. Dozens of protesters, democratic and human rights activists, and journalists were allegedly harassed, detained, roughed-up, and arrested by government authorities in the weeks leading up to and following the contest. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly called attention to the arrests on a visit to Baku in June, calling on the Aliyev government to “respect [its] citizens’ right to express views peacefully, [and] to release those who have been detained for doing so.”
Aliyev released Bakhtiyar Hajiyev – an American- and Georgian-educated pro-democracy activist and former parliamentary candidate who had spent over a year in jail on disputed charges of avoiding mandatory military service – in preparation for Clinton’s visit, earning praise from the international community. Just one week later, however, the government was back to hassling the opposition, detaining and eventually arresting two more pro-democracy organizers.
Bayramli is a reporter covering foreign affairs for Iranian broadcaster Sahar TV, and Tehran’s semi-official Fars news agency. According to the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan (IPGA) – a consortium of international human rights organizations — Bayramli was often critical of Baku’s close cooperation with the West, especially Israel, criticism widely seen as directed by his employers in Iran. He was arrested in June and charged with possession of 0.0387 grams of heroin.
Janiyev is a regional reporter for Azerbaijan’s Xural newspaper. IPGA describes his work as critical of the government in the southern region of Lankeran. Janiyev was arrested in September 2011, on charges of hooliganism shortly after publishing a series of articles exploring alleged links between authorities and drug trafficking in the region.
Khasmammadov is a blogger and human rights activist whose work focused on alleged human trafficking in Azerbaijan’s Ujar region. He also wrote about suspected ties between regional authorities and organized criminal groups operating in the area. He had been jailed since November 2011, on charges of hooliganism and resisting arrest.
While these latest releases come as welcome news, some remain skeptical that Baku has had a true change of heart on issues of freedom of expression. Dozens of pro-democracy protesters, activists, and journalists remain imprisoned on charges that amount to little more than embarrassing the government in front of a watching world.
The Aliyev government must release more journalists, activists, bloggers, members of the opposition, and demonstrators, and must stop its silencing and intimidation of voices critical of its governance if it wishes to be viewed as a trusted partner in Western capitals. The West in turn must continue to raise the issues of human rights, and freedom of assembly, expression, and petition in all its dealings with Baku on economic and security matters.
Azerbaijan has great potential for growth and has set its sights on attracting foreign investment from Europe and the broader Western world. Before Baku can realize these goals, however, it must demonstrate the confidence and political maturity to allow a vibrant opposition (one hopefully more competent than the perpetually in-fighting crowd now present), complete with independent and critical sources of information and opinion, to flourish.
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