Today the Nobel Peace Prize is being awarded to the EU. The prize of SEK 8 million originates from Alfred Nobel’s fortune, part of which was amassed from the Nobel brothers’ oil dealings in Azerbaijan over 100 years ago. While the prize is being awarded in Oslo, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt will be in the Azerbaijani capital Baku with his colleagues from the EU countries Poland and Bulgaria. We expect that the conversation with the Azerbaijani officials will be infused by criticism of the human rights situation.
The last time Azerbaijan came under the spotlight of the Swedish media was in May this year, when Baku hosted the Eurovision Song Contest. Since then, the Azerbaijani dictatorship under the leadership of President Ilham Aliyev has intensified its repression of human rights defenders and independent journalists. They are threatened, arrested and in some cases prosecuted for alleged crimes. Human rights organisations are denied registration. At least five journalists were harassed and arrested after the Eurovision Song Contest and two were mistreated and subjected to blackmail in the months before the festival.
Last month, the Azerbaijani authorities introduced several legislative changes that restrict freedom of assembly. Anyone who participates in unlawful or “legally prohibited” public meetings faces up to three years in prison. The fines have soared – from previously having been the equivalent of between SEK 850 and 4,200, they are now between SEK 42,000 and 68,000. Although citizens have the right to freedom of assembly under the constitution, they are forbidden by the authorities to demonstrate in central Baku. Another example of restrictions on freedom of assembly is the arrest of around seventy people at a peaceful demonstration against corruption in parliament on 20 October. Among them were 13 leading activists who were sentenced to seven to ten days in prison.
Today a large number of human rights defenders, journalists and opposition politicians are behind bars. One of them is human rights defender Vidadi Isgandarov, who was sentenced to three years in prison for obstructing the election process. The trial came after he had participated in demonstrations against the dictatorial regime in spring 2011. Another is human rights defender Taleh Khasmammadov, who was sentenced to four years in prison for “hooliganism” and “resisting a police officer” after publishing articles on corruption in the law enforcement agencies. One of the latest detainees is Hilal Mammadov, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Tolishi sado. He was arrested in June this year on charges of drug possession, espionage and hate crime. Mammadov has been subjected to starvation while in custody and was beaten up by a cellmate just under two weeks ago.
These are just a few of many examples of human rights abuses committed by the Ilham Aliyev and his regime. In order to prove themselves worthy representatives of this year’s Nobel prize winner, Carl Bildt and the Polish and Bulgarian foreign ministers must focus on the deteriorating human rights situation in Azerbaijan – even if the criticism comes at a price for the EU representatives. While Azerbaijan is a small post-Soviet country with a predominantly poor population, the country’s large oil reserves mean that criticism from Western politicians is not always as loud as it should be. However, we assume that oil will not cloud Carl Bildt’s and his EU colleagues’ judgement.
Executive Director, Civil Rights Defenders
Chairman, Human Rights Club