Azerbaijan cracks down while chairing Council of Europe
- 13 October 2014
- From the section Europe
"We are the last of the Mohicans," says Leila Alieva. "First the government weakened the opposition, then targeted independent media, and now us - the NGOs."
Her research institute, the Centre for National and International Studies in Azerbaijan. is one of dozens of pro-democracy non-governmental organisations under investigation by the Azeri authorities.
And the crackdown is taking place as oil-rich Azerbaijan chairs Europe's leading pro-democracy institution, the Council of Europe.
In most cases the authorities have frozen bank accounts or launched tax inspections, forcing NGOs that received foreign grants to suspend projects.
Other organisations include Transparency International, Irex, National Endowment for Democracy and Oxfam.
So far Ms Alieva has managed to escape prosecution. But many of her peers have been less fortunate.
In recent months, the pressure on the government's critics has intensified.
Two prominent human rights activists, Leyla Yunus and Rasul Jafarov, were arrested in late July. They had been compiling a list of Azerbaijan's political prisoners.
Their names have since been added to the document.
The list records 98 individuals in detention, among them human rights activists, opposition members, journalists and bloggers.
The charges against them range from espionage and drugs and weapons possession to hooliganism and tax evasion.
Mrs Yunus, a veteran human rights campaigner and an advocate of reconciliation with neighbouring Armenia, won one of France's most prestigious awards, the Legion of Honour, last year.
Her husband, Arif Yunus, is a respected historian.
Both were charged with high treason.
"After 36 years of living together we are in different cells in different prisons," Mrs Yunus wrote in a letter to her husband in late August.
"We just never would have predicted that the 21st Century would bring the repression of the 1930s," she said.
Human Rights Watch has described the charges against the couple as "completely bogus".
"These are the towering figures of civil society, who we felt were more or less untouchable. But apparently no-one is untouchable in Azerbaijan. At this stage all critical civil society is pretty much exterminated," says Georgi Gogia, the group's senior researcher in the Caucasus.
The Azeri government denies the charges are politically motivated.
"The rule of law is guaranteed in Azerbaijan. The case of any individual relates to the specific criminal offences and has nothing to do with their political and human rights-related activities," said Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hikmet Hajiyev, in a written statement to the BBC.
Critics have frequently been targeted since pro-democracy protests in 2011 erupted on the streets of Baku, inspired by the so-called Arab Spring.
But with Azerbaijan chairing the Council of Europe, questions have been raised about its ability to respect the 47-nation organisation's founding principles.
"It's shocking that the chairman is basically a dictatorship using its chairmanship period this summer to arrest literally every three days all the critical minds that defend the very value of the institution," says Gerald Knauss, who heads the Berlin-based European Stability Initiative (ESI).
Azerbaijan's chairmanship may have hurt the Council's reputation, the secretary-general's spokesman Daniel Holtgen concedes.
However, he says: "Our member states want us to engage and not disengage with Azerbaijan. None of the member states asked to postpone or cancel Azerbaijan's chairmanship."
The reluctance of Council of Europe members to sanction Azerbaijan may in part be down to Europe's relationship with the oil-rich nation as a key energy supplier and trade partner, and to multi-billion-dollar investments by Western oil companies, which have helped boost Azerbaijan's GDP to $73.5bn (£45bn; 58bn euros) in 2013.
In September, oil giant BP celebrated the start of the Southern Gas Corridor - a $45bn project that will deliver Azeri gas directly to Europe.
Before the ceremony, which also marked BP's 20 years of co-operation with Azerbaijan, Human Rights Watch wrote to the company's chief executive to take a stance against the crackdown on civil rights.
BP did not respond to the letter publicly but, in a written statement to the BBC, said that it believed that the government of Azerbaijan had a primary responsibility to protect human rights and that the company was "ready to implement their guidance in this regard".
So far, there has been little guidance from the Azeri government. It maintains that civil liberties are being respected in Azerbaijan.
Mr Hajiyev, the foreign ministry spokesman, says there are 3,000 domestic NGOs registered in the country that the government is prepared to support.
But those that receive funding from abroad use the money for "dubious purposes, to provoke disorder and instability".
"We all know how some other countries have seriously suffered from this type of foreign intervention," Mr Hajiyev says. "Azerbaijan is determined not to fall victim to such kinds of charity."
Leila Alieva says that in targeting pro-democracy NGOs and other critical voices in the country the authorities wanted to avoid scenarios similar to Ukraine's Euromaidan movement that toppled the Yanukovych government earlier this year.
"If you look at the pictures of those arrested, they are the cream of our society. Probably in other countries they would have been appointed as ministers."