A relatively small nation of 10 million people which borders on Turkey, Azerbaijan faces many challenges regarding its human rights. Much like its larger neighbour, Azerbaijan deals wtih ongoing struggles with censorship and the suppression of free speech.
A nation whose economy relies heavily on its production and exports of oil, Azerbaijan has been hit especially hard by the recession of oil prices in the past year. As a result, the Manat – Azerbaijan’s currency – has seen a drastic fall in its value. Protests held in response to the decline of the Manat have faced suppression – sometimes violent – by the state police and military forces.
Reports of abuse and torture at the hands of police have continued to surface, notably in the cases of youth activists who have been beaten and threatened with sexual degradation and rape in order to force them to confess to drug charges. Although the exact number cannot be verified, the U.S. State Department’s 2016 report notes that at least four cases of death can be linked to abusive and excessive force at the hands of police. In other cases, significant numbers of defendants have reported being beaten by authorities to drag confessions and testimonies against political opponents of the state out of them.
In an act doing little to encourage the populace, the 2016 constitutional referendum increased the duration of Presidential term limits while granting the office additional powers. Most worryingly it granted the ability to dissolve the Azerbaijani Parliament at will.
Reporting critical of the government often leads to the harassment and imprisonment of journalists who are responsible. At the close of 2016, at least 14 prisoners of conscience were still being detained, according to Amnesty International’s report. Human Rights Watch’s report puts the number of political prisoners at upwards of 25, while the State Department notes the number could reach as high as 160.
A bright patch amid the darkness, the president pardoned over 100 prisoners in March of 2016; among them were 14 individuals commonly believed to be imprisoned for their political beliefs. Recently, on September 15, a group of Azerbaijani human rights defenders issued a statement thanking the president and courts of Azerbaijan, saying, “We state that such steps serve defence of human rights and freedom in Azerbaijan, humanization of punishment policy and increase of effectiveness of judicial system.”
Human rights in Azerbaijan have a long way to go before the citizens of Azerbaijan have equal and protected rights. Not least among the challenges before the nation are the continued abuses of power by the government and police, allowed by the complicity of a corrupt judiciary. Efforts from outside the country, such as bills before the U.S. House of Representatives as well as EU-affiliated organizations, hope to pressure the nation’s government into reforming their violations of human rights in Azerbaijan.
– Erik Halberg