Friday, July 12 2019 21:02
Ani Mshetsyan

CoE Commissioner: Freedom of expression in Azerbaijan continues to be  under threat

CoE Commissioner: Freedom of expression in Azerbaijan continues to be  under threat

ArmInfo."Freedom of expression in Azerbaijan continues to be under threat" said Dunja Mijatovic, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, at the end of a  four-day visit to Azerbaijan, informs.

Recalling the European Court of Human Rights" judgments stressing a  troubling pattern of arbitrary arrest and detention of government  critics, civil society activists and human rights defenders through  retaliatory prosecutions and misuse of criminal law in defiance of  the rule of law, the Commissioner highlighted that "releasing all  persons who are in detention because of the views they expressed  should remain a priority." She also reiterated her call to  decriminalise defamation.

In addition, the Commissioner raised with the authorities the issue  of travel bans imposed on journalists, lawyers, political activists  and human rights defenders, some of which have been found in  violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. "The  authorities should refrain from resorting to the disproportionate  practice of imposing travel bans arbitrarily and lift immediately  those which are in contradiction with the right to leave the  country."

Another focus of the Commissioner"s visit was the situation of  lawyers in Azerbaijan. The Commissioner noted that Azerbaijan has the  lowest number of lawyers per 100 000 inhabitants in the Council of  Europe area. This undermines access to justice, especially in rural  areas where the number of lawyers is very low.

The Commissioner was informed of the Presidential Decree of 3 April  2019 providing for legislative, institutional and practical reforms  in the justice system, which should lead to an improved access to  justice.  "In addition to these reforms, the government should step  up its efforts to address effectively the shortage of lawyers in the  country, in particular in the regions, including by ensuring that  admission to the Bar Association is based on a transparent  qualification process and objective criteria" she pointed out.

Stressing that the freedom of expression of lawyers is related to the  independence of the legal profession, the Commissioner noted with  concern a number of interferences with lawyers" freedom of  expression, including through the opening of disciplinary  proceedings.  "Lawyers should comply with ethical standards and be  able to engage in professional activities without fear of  retaliation" the Commissioner said.

The Commissioner also looked at the situation of internally displaced  persons (IDPs). Azerbaijan has a significant population of IDPs as a  consequence of the unresolved conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region  and the seven adjacent districts. The Commissioner commends important  steps taken by the authorities to address human rights issues of  IDPs, notably by providing durable housing. While in Baku, the  Commissioner visited a newly constructed settlement in the Sabunchu  district, as well as the old dormitories of the Technical University  in the Yasamal district, where she could talk to a number of IDPs:   "many people have expressed their wish to return to their homes;  however, in the meantime it is important to ensure that livelihood  opportunities are provided."

In this regard, the Commissioner wishes to reiterate the importance  of finally reaching a peaceful settlement of the unresolved conflict  in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh region, so that those IDPs who  wish to return there may do so on a voluntary basis, in safety and  dignity.  During her visit from 9 to 12 July, the Commissioner met  with the authorities, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs,  Elmar Mammadyarov, the Minister of Justice, Fikrat Mammadov, the  Minister of Internal Affairs, Vilayat Eyvazov, the Head of the  Department of Foreign Policy Affairs in the Presidential  Administration, Hikmat Hajiyev, the Prosecutor General, Zakir  Garalov, the President of the Supreme Court, Ramiz Rzayev, and the  Chairman of the State Committee for Affairs of Refugees and IDPs,  Rovshan Rzayev. Other interlocutors included the Ombudsperson, Elmira  Suleymanova, representatives of civil society, lawyers, as well as  the Chair and members of the Bar Association.

The Commissioner also went to prisons where she met with the  journalists Seymur Hazi and Afgan Mukhtarli. The Commissioner would  like to express her appreciation for the fact that the visits have  been facilitated by the Azerbaijani authorities.

The Commissioner's report on her visit to Azerbaijan is forthcoming. 

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