Rights concerns cast shadow on Azerbaijan's political rise

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Nida activists jailed in AzerbaijanImage source, Nida
Image caption,
Nida is struggling to maintain campaigns with its activists in jail

The latest lengthy jail terms handed out to activists in Azerbaijan have raised already high concerns over human rights abuses in the country - just as it is due to take on a prestigious international role.

Eight young activists from the prominent Nida movement were convicted of organising mass unrest, and possession of illegal drugs and weapons. They had been on a 20-day hunger strike - but a Baku court sentenced them to between six and eight years in jail on Tuesday.

Amnesty International has called them "prisoners of conscience", while Human Rights Watch called the judgment a "colossal injustice".

But the authorities maintain that they were imprisoned for their criminal activity, dismissing any doubts about the courts' impartiality.

'Bitter irony'

The activists, aged between 18 and 30, had protested against non-combat soldier deaths in the army - some of the biggest demonstrations the country has seen in recent years.

The court verdict came days before the country is due to assume chairmanship of the cabinet of ministers at the Council of Europe (CoE) - the continent's leading human rights watchdog.

In a recent open letter to members of the CoE's parliamentary assembly (Pace), the European Stability Initiative, a European think-tank, wrote of the "bitter irony" of Azerbaijan taking over the chairmanship at a time when it has "never had more political prisoners".

"There should not be any [political prisoners] in a Council of Europe member state. Pace… has so far turned its eyes away."

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The West's need for gas has put President Ilham Aliyev in a strong position

Since the crisis in Ukraine, the search for alternative gas sources, which would reduce Europe's dependence on Russia, has become a priority for Europe.

Azerbaijan provides this alternative, with new gas pipeline projects due to be finished in the coming years.

But Western diplomats continue to be accused of "selling out democracy for energy".

Indeed, while Western diplomats and European officials have expressed "concern" and "disappointment" at the the verdicts against the activists, there is no sign of shock.

'Hardly news'

The muted reaction is in stark contrast to five years ago, when bloggers Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli - known as the "donkey bloggers" - were jailed for "hooliganism" charges.

There was uproar in the international community, and Hillary Clinton, then US secretary of state, raised the issue with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev. The activists were released by presidential pardon after a year in prison.

But that was then.

"Alas, it's hardly news any more that activists are handed long prison sentences in Azerbaijan," said Giorgi Gogia, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "This has been a mainstay in the government's two-year effort to silence its critics."

With so many jailed activists and journalists - Azerbaijan's Human Rights Club says there are 142 political prisoners - it appears that being active in civil society in Azerbaijan is more of a risk than ever in its 20 years of independence.

There have been no mass protests in the country since the disputed presidential elections in October, when Mr Aliyev claimed victory for a third term in office with more than 84% of the votes.

In comparison with previous post-election protests, the demonstrations were small and ineffective.

Many put this down partly to a crackdown which had jailed opposition activists in the run-up to the vote.

But, to many, the overall picture is clear: despite its best efforts, civil society in Azerbaijan is paralysed because of recent events; and gas and geopolitics are seen as too important for the West to put any real pressure on the authorities.

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