"Harassment of journalists and others expressing critical views in Azerbaijan is a source of serious human rights concern. The authorities should release all persons who are in detention because of their opinions and improve legislation and practice on freedom of expression and assembly" said today Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, releasing a report on his visit to Azerbaijan carried out from 22 to 24 May 2013.
Recommending the full decriminalisation of defamation, the Commissioner regrets that the President of Azerbaijan has signed in June amendments aimed at facilitating the application of defamation provisions to online expression. Another concern relates to the excessive damages which are sometimes awarded in civil defamation cases. "The authorities should finalise the reform of the defamation legislation in order to repeal imprisonment and allow only proportionate fines."
The Commissioner further underscores the need to strengthen the independence and impartiality of the courts, which appear to be particularly severe in judging journalists and other media professionals.
The Commissioner is also concerned by recent restrictions to the exercise of fundamental freedoms online. "A wave of arrests and prosecutions, as well as widespread surveillance, has targeted social media users. These practices must cease immediately and the Internet must remain a free arena for public expression."
Concerns remain about the limitations imposed on freedom of assembly, notably the excessive use of force by law enforcement officials to disperse demonstrations and the requirement of authorisation to hold public gatherings. "The authorities should refrain from using the force against peaceful demonstrators and should seek to facilitate and protect public assemblies at the organisers' preferred location." The Commissioner is also worried about the recent harshening of the fines and the use of administrative detention against those who organise or participate in "unauthorised" public gatherings and urges the authorities to ensure that no disproportionate sanction, which would undermine the fundamental right to peaceful assembly, is imposed.
A further reason of deep concern are the additional restrictions imposed on NGOs by recent amendments, as well as the tone of the political discourse which often stigmatises NGOs, in particular those receiving funds from abroad. "The authorities must fully respect the right to freedom of association, which is crucial for a healthy democracy. Alleviating the registration requirements and making the whole process, as well as the functioning of NGOs, less bureaucratic is a first necessary step."
Lastly, the Commissioner expresses concerns about the effective enjoyment of the right to property in Azerbaijan. "Expropriations and demolitions should be carried out in a lawful and transparent manner. The authorities should provide fair market value compensations and allow access to an effective national remedy for those who would like to impugn the decisions against their properties."