4 April 2016

Brave and Free - Calling for Real Freedoms in Azerbaijan

At the end of March 2016, Intigam Aliyev, Rasul Jafarov, and Anar Mammadli, three brave defenders of human rights and democratic freedoms in Azerbaijan, were released from wrongful imprisonment. Other political prisoners, including Khadija Ismayilova, a fearless journalist who reported on the corruption of the ruling Aliyev family in Baku, remain behind bars on blatantly trumped up charges.

The release of Intigam, Rasul, and Anar is of course very welcome, even if the timing preceded the visit of President Ilham Aliyev to the United States. Rasul is a brave human rights defender and Intigam is a lawyer who has been pressing the European Court of Human Rights to release other political prisoners.

Having nominated Anar for the 2014 Václav Havel Human Rights Prize as then co-Chair of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum (Anar was one of the co-ordinators of the Forum's Working Group 1 on Democracy, Human Rights, Good Governance & Stability), I am convinced that the constant pressure from civil society and diplomats does make a difference. Anar received the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize, awarded to him by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) during the term when Azerbaijan chaired the Council of Europe. It often takes time, but there is no excuse not to keep on lobbying for those who fight so hard for democracy and civil liberties in hostile conditions.

It is great to see the resilience of Intigam, Rasul and Anar after more than two years in prison. Barely days after the last of them was released on 28 March, they co-authored the piece featured here in The Guardian. Entitled If Azerbaijan is a democracy, why were we imprisoned for our views?, they sum up the situation very succinctly:

"If there is no respect for the rule of law, if we cannot enjoy basic human rights, then our freedom is subject to the whimsical pardons and arbitrary decisions of Azeri courts, not inalienable rights that we are born with. We are all active in different areas of civic society, and all of them are perfectly legal in a functioning democracy. If Azerbaijan is to be considered as such, the government must stop interfering with our work."

Intigam, Rasul, and Anar, please continue with your work, and thank you for your unflinching support to others who remain in wrongful imprisonment.

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