In recent months, a wave of arrests against democracy activists has shaken Azerbaijan. One of those attacking the activists is the chairman for the sub-committee for human rights in the Council of Europe.
Av Rasmus Canbäck 29 augusti, 2023
“On August 15th, a group of young people who claim to be against the war held a meeting in our country. I watched the video (of the meeting) yesterday. It’s completely impossible to recount here what the young people in the video said. In any case, their main argument is that Azerbaijan is said to be occupying Armenia and that they, like Armenians, are demanding the opening of the Lachin Corridor.”
This is how Azerbaijani parliamentarian Kamal Jafarov begins a lengthy op-ed in the Azerbaijani state newspaper AzPolitics. He accuses a group of young people who gathered in the country on August 15th and claim to be against the war.
Continuing, Jafarov accuses the Azerbaijani anti-war activists of serving Armenia’s interests, labeling them as “traitors,” and claims they don’t even have “a conscience from a legal perspective”.
If it weren’t for Kamal Jafarov also being the chairman of a sub-committee on human rights in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), it might not have raised any eyebrows.
The sub-committee’s task is to prepare statements, reports, and other materials for the regular committee on legal affairs and human rights. The materials are then subject to decisions by the assembly.
Accusations against Azerbaijani democracy and anti-war activists have been on the rise in recent months, and Jafarov’s rhetoric is just one among many from politicians in the Azerbaijani ruling party.
An Azerbaijani underground organization monitoring the arrests of political prisoners published new statistics in July. From 2022 to 2023, the proportion of arrested political prisoners increased from 99 to 204. The statistics were published before the arrest of the well-respected opinion-maker Gubad Ibadoglu.
After Ibadoglu’s arrest, more democracy activists from the Democracy 18 labour movement were arrested, and several were called in for police questioning.One of them is Samad Shikhi, who was summoned by the police just days before the debate evening held on August 15th. Only after his parents assisted him in deleting government-critical posts on social media was he released.
To Blankspot, Samad Shikhi questions the actions of the Azerbaijani authorities.
“If Azerbaijan is truly against the war, and doesn’t want a new war, why are they against those who are against the war? Why portray them as traitors?”
He continues to reason that arrests are not new, but they are affecting a new generation of activists.
“Arrests have been happening for years, but after the 2020 war, foreign organizations to some extent left Azerbaijan. There was disappointment that many who claimed to be against the war in Nagorno-Karabakh actually supported it when it came down to it. What we are seeing now is arrests of a new generation of activists.”
How do they differ?
“Unlike previous generations of opposition, the new generation says that the war in Karabakh was a mistake and opposes the war. A new alternative opposition is emerging instead of the more fascist one that fundamentally hates Armenians. The new generation talks about coexistence and supports peace at its core. Aliyev (the president) doesn’t like this.”
In addition to the significant increase in Azerbaijani political prisoners over the past year, the first arrests of Armenians have also occurred since the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020. After the war in 2020, Azerbaijan captured about 200 prisoners of war. Azerbaijan denies them rights under the laws of war, which the European Parliament condemned Azerbaijan for in a resolution from 2021.
However, the recent arrests of Armenians occur after more than nine months of the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh. Since December 12 of last year, Azerbaijan has imposed a blockade on the humanitarian corridor connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.
After significant international pressure from Western countries, human rights organizations, and the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Azerbaijan began allowing certain vehicles from the International Red Cross Federation (ICRC) to pass through the blockade, as well as young students.
At the end of July, a 67-year-old man was arrested by Azerbaijan while being transported in a Red Cross vehicle. He was on his way to Armenia for heart surgery. Azerbaijan accuses him of committing war crimes in the 1990s. On August 28, another three people were arrested when they passed through the blockade during the review of the Russian peacekeeping mission. They are 20-year-olds playing in a local football team in Martuni, in Nagorno-Karabakh.
They are accused of desecrating the Azerbaijani flag.Among the democracy activists who are affected by the persecution in Azerbaijan, several have expressed on social media that the arrests of Armenians show what they can expect if Nagorno-Karabakh becomes a full part of the country.
In local Armenian media, as well as among many of the democracy activists in Azerbaijan, the word “kidnapping” is used instead of “arrests”.
The event on August 15 attracted barely 50 spectators, but it received nationwide coverage in Azerbaijani media. Several extended segments pointed out everyone involved in the anti-war networks by name and images. Newspapers published photos of them labeled as “traitors.”
The increased number of arrests, however, began shortly before the Midsummer weekend in June when large protests escalated in a village in western Azerbaijan. When a mining company with connections to both the president’s family and major American interests announced plans to expand mining operations, the local population protested.
Images of elderly women being sprayed in the face by riot police garnered sympathy in the cities. Several journalists covering police brutality were arrested and mistreated. An activist, Giyas Ibrahim, who wasn’t even present at the scene, was sentenced to 32 days in prison for expressing criticism on social media.
Since then, the village where the protests occurred has been closed for free entry and exit.The recent arrests raise questions about whether Azerbaijan is heading towards further erosion of civil society.
The first significant erosion of civil society occurred around the time Ilham Aliyev became president after his father’s death in 2003. A first wave of opposition figures was either imprisoned or fled the country.
The second major breakdown occurred between 2010 and 2014 when thousands of activists were arrested, human rights organizations were forced to leave the country, and foreign media outlets were shut down.
Since the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020, Ilham Aliyev’s popularity ratings have increased. However, several new restrictive laws have come into effect. As early as 2021, new media laws were being formulated that further curtailed press freedom, and in 2023, a new law was passed that practically makes the creation of new political parties impossible.
At the same time, gas exports from Azerbaijan to the EU have doubled after EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen signed new agreements with Ilham Aliyev in the summer of 2022. Besides Russia owning 20% of gas production in Azerbaijan, a significant portion of the gas is accused to come directly from Russia.
Critics argue that the EU’s trade relations enable Azerbaijan’s abuses against both Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and its own population.
Blankspot has attempted to reach Kamal Jafarov for a comment.
Top picture: The Parliamentarian Assembly of the Council of Europe. Photo from CoE/PACE
Av Rasmus Canbäck
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