Johannesburg. 4 June 2012: Global civil society network CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and Azerbaijan CSO the Center for National and International Studies (CNIS) are deeply concerned about the safety of Azeri civil society activists who raised awareness of human rights violations during the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, held last month in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Civil society in Azerbaijan was highly vocal ahead of the contest, demanding the release of political prisoners and the removal of restrictions on freedoms of speech and assembly under the banner of the Sing for Democracy campaign. Now, as the international spotlight shifts from Azerbaijan, credible concerns are being raised about possible renewed persecution of activists.
“The Azeri government has a long record of persecuting dissidents, civil society activists and journalists,” says Liela Alieva, President of CNIS. “We fear that vocal activists who campaigned against the holding of the Eurovision contest in the country will now be targeted as the government intensifies repression in the run up to the 2013 presidential elections.”
Preceding the Eurovision Song Contest, CIVICUS observed an increase in politically motivated and arbitrary detentions of civil society activists. On 20 April 2012, blogger and human rights defender Taleh Khasmammadov was sentenced to four years in prison on charges of “hooliganism,” “disorderly conduct” and “resisting authorities.” The real reason was to prevent him publishing reports on connections between the police and criminal gangs. Oktay Gulaliyev, coordinator of CSO Kura, has been on pre-trial custody since April 2012 on allegations of inciting unrest, violence and resisting orders from the government.
On 25 May government security officials arrested, detained and later released Ali Kerimli, Coordinator of Council of the Public Chamber and leader of opposition party the Popular Front, together with over 70 civil society members, for participating in the peaceful ‘Public Walk’ campaign in Baku. The demonstration, which attracted hundreds of civil society activists, marked the third time during the week-long contest that security forces used excessive force to disperse peaceful protesters.
“The violent dispersal of demonstrators that happened during the Eurovision Song Contest formed but one part of the Azeri government’s ongoing campaign to silence civil society and independent dissent in Azerbaijan,” says Mandeep Tiwana, Policy and Advocacy Manager at CIVICUS. “Now that the spotlight has shifted, the international community must not look the other way. They must draw attention to human rights violations and engage the government on its failure to uphold its human rights obligations.”
CIVICUS and CNIS urge the Azeri government to desist from further harassment and intimidation of civil society activists involved in the Sing for Democracy Campaign, to release all prisoners of conscience and ensure that the exercise of rights of freedom of assembly, expression and association are respected ahead of the 2013 elections.