Chanting “Freedom!” in Baku

On Saturday 26 January, the Azerbaijani authorities brutally dispersed an assembly of the country’s democratic opposition and human rights defenders.

More than forty demonstrators, among them journalists and well-known human rights activists, were arrested. So far Polish authorities have kept quiet about the incident, which unfortunately confirms the previous Polish policy towards Azerbaijan.

The movement of dissent was initiated by the citizens of Ismayilli, a small town situated about 200 kilometers north-west of Baku. They demanded that the governor of the Ismayilli region resigned from office. During the protest, the police used tear gas and water cannons. Demonstrators in Baku wanted to support the dispersed crowd from Ismayilli. The police blocked the entrance to the square where the opposition rallies usually take place and forced the Baku demonstrators to search for a different location. Quickly afterwards many of the protesters were arrested.

Approximately a hundred people took part in the protest. Some of them chanted “Freedom!”. By demonstrating, the crowds in Ismayilli and Baku were expressing their frustration with the ubiquitous corruption and authoritarian rule of Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan. It is not without significance that this year Azerbaijan will hold the next presidential elections the result of which seems to have already been decided.

Some prominent human rights activists were arrested during the assembly in Baku, among them Malahat Nasibova (winner of the Rafto Prize awarded to human rights activists), Intigam Alieyev (a lawyer representing applicants before the European Court of Human Rights), Khadija Ismayilova (an investigative journalist, winner of the Fritt Ord Foundation and Zeit-Stiftung award), and the blogger Emin Milli. Many of the opposition activists were also detained.

After a couple of hours, 10 detainees were released without any sanctions, among them Intigam Alieyev and Malahat Nasibova. Some of them were driven to remote areas around Baku and left there. Others were fined for taking part in an illegal demonstration. Khadija Ismayilova received a fine of 400 manats (approx. 400 EUR). Opposition leaders received much bigger fines amounting even to 2000 manats. Emin Milli received a sanction of administrative detention. Demonstrators’ trials lasted the whole night from 26 to 27 January. Many of them still await trial.

It is highly probable that the arrests of the prominent human rights activists, journalists and the blogger are connected with their participation in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) which took place between 21 and 25 January. The Assembly was supposed to vote on the resolution containing a list of political prisoners in Azerbaijan and calling for their release. Malahat Nasibova was present at PACE and participated in a series of meetings with its members, while Emin Milli and Khadija Ismayilova reported on the developments in Strasburg. Intigam Alieyev was involved in the works on the document circulated among PACE members. Eventually, PACE did not adopt the resolution on political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Instead, another much more lenient resolution was passed which gently criticizes the state of Azerbaijani democracy, but does not do any harm to the authorities in Baku. The rejection of the so-called Strasser report was considered a success by the Azerbaijani authorities. It was widely publicized by the regime media.

In the context of the events in Baku, the issue of Polish foreign policy towards human rights in other countries once again emerges. Poland prides itself on such projects as the Eastern Partnership, on the tradition of “Solidarność” and its successful transformation. When it is convenient for political purposes, the representatives of the Polish authorities know how to fight for human rights, boasting about past successes. Belarus is a convenient target for criticism. Such criticism allows the government to indirectly distance itself from the Russian authorities and display concern for democratic values and human rights. Finally, it makes it possible to give funds to support the democratic opposition. But, the interest in ideas displayed by the Polish authorities, unfortunately just like in the case of other European countries, ends when interests of an economic nature come into play. Suddenly, the Polish authorities forget about the rule of law, human rights and democracy. They let an authoritarian state, where there is no space for dissent or enjoyment of the freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, be a part of the Council of Europe and the Eastern Partnership. It is pointless to search for any statements from the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs with regard to Azerbaijan. Not even a word was uttered by the representatives of the Ministry last weekend which would suggest any interest in the subject.

Before the last PACE, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs instructed deputies and senators to vote against the Strasser report, which included a list of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Only one senator did not follow the Ministry’s suggestions – Marek Borowski. Tadeusz Iwiskiński, in turn, delivered a speech mainly praising the actions of the authorities, for which the ambassador of Azerbaijan will probably send him a jar of Astrakhan caviar. It is a shame that our deputies did not display as much interest in the Azerbaijani case as, for example, deputies from Sweden or Norway, who despite economic interests were able to support the idea of respect for human rights.

In the context of Polish foreign policy towards Azerbaijan, the program of the Eastern Partnership, a flagship initiative of Polish foreign policy, verges on grotesque. It is no surprise then that Western countries do not treat us too seriously when it comes to the Partnership if we ourselves do not believe in what we preach. We all remember the failure of the Partnership summit during the Polish Presidency in the EU. Not even one common position deploring human rights violations in the countries neighboring the EU was issued as a result of the summit.

The question also arises of how long our authorities, as well as the EU, will promote the policy of dialogue and cooperation with authoritarian regimes in the European neighborhood. So far the dialogue has brought no results, if it has at all been possible. The Azerbaijani authorities regularly refuse to sit together at the common table and discuss human rights and democracy within the human rights dialogues carried out by the European External Action Service. It seems that both the European leaders and the promoters of the European Partnership did not envisage any contingency scenario for such situations.

Between 1 and 2 February, the Personal Democracy Forum, a big conference under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of the Economy, will take place in Warsaw. Emin Milli, an Azerbaijani blogger, was supposed to be among the guests. Unfortunately, he will not be able to attend the event, as he was arrested on 26 January on account of his alleged participation in an illegal demonstration and received punishment of 15 days of so-called administrative detention. His chair at the Personal Democracy Forum will be empty.

The Minister of Justice, Jarosław Gowin, will be one of the participants at the conference. We hope that he will consider Emin Milli’s plight and publicly call on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to take all possible diplomatic actions for the blogger to be released from detention. Such a reaction should be an obligation of the representatives of the Polish authorities who still remember the mass arrests and harassment of the democratic opposition in their own country.


Article originally published in Polish in Gazeta Wyborcza by Adam Bodnar, Ph.D., the vice-president of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, and Dominika Bychawska-Siniarska, the director of “Europe of Human Rights” and “The Observatory of Freedom of Media in Poland”, two programs in the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights

Photo: David Mdzinarishvili, Reuters