Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum

It Is Time to Consider EU Sanctions against Azerbaijani Officials

by Jeff Lovitt

The level of suppression of civil society and independent media in Azerbaijan is now so intense that it is no longer possible to argue that sanctions - visa bans and freezing of assets in EU banks - should apply only to Belarusian officials and not to Azerbaijani officials. From Working Group 1 of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum alone, human rights defenders Intigam Aliyev and Rasul Jafarov, not to mention former WG1 coordinator Anar Mammadli, have all been handed jail sentences of between 5 and 7 years. If the Civil Society Forum does not speak up for those who speak truth to power, it will have lost its legitimacy to defence civil liberties and human rights: Anar, an internationally respected election monitor, merely stated the indisputable truth that the presidential elections in Azerbaijan were neither free nor fair.

These and other cases of politically motivated arrests and sentencing on bogus charges of fraud and treason are not only entirely unjustified, but no one anywhere believes they are anything other than cases of political persecution. Furthermore, a broad spectrum of civil society groups in Azerbaijan have been subjected to office raids, summons to the prosecutor's office, and the freezing of their bank accounts - not just their organisations' accounts, but also their personal bank accounts.

The EU and its member states should make a no-exceptions policy of always raising the issue of human rights and political prisoners when meeting with Azerbaijan government officials, and on official visits to Azerbaijan must always meet with civil society organisations, and pressure for civil society to have a seat at the table in dialogue between the EU and the Azerbaijan government.

Unless the political prisoners (around 100 at the last count) are immediately released, and laws blocking EU funding to CSOs in Azerbaijan are not revoked, the EU should now show consistency by applying visa bans and asset freezes to officials from Azerbaijan - not least the judges and prosecutors who have instigated and run the political trials of human rights defenders, civil society leaders, and independent journalists. Those who are being persecuted are precisely those who through their bravery and commitment to universal human rights have shown to the EU that civil society is the EU's strongest and most consistent ally in promoting EU standards and democratic values in Azerbaijan. The EU should recognise their commitment to EU values, and should relentlessly pressure the authorities in Azerbaijan to change course and respect civil liberties and human rights, and end its clampdown on civil society.

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