Azerbaijan’s 2020 elections and the ongoing persecution of human rights defenders
By James Dowsett, EHRAC.
9 February 2020 was snap parliamentary election day in Azerbaijan. In early December 2019, the ruling New Azerbaijan Party unexpectedly requested that Parliament be dissolved. After this request was approved by Parliament and the Constitutional Court of Azerbaijan, President Ilham Aliyev signed a dissolution decree and called elections. There remains speculation regarding the reasons behind this. The New Azerbaijan Party justifies the decision by claiming that it did so to support the reforms of President Aliyev. Others claim that the move was really intended to strengthen the position of his wife, Vice-President Mehriban Aliyeva.
According to an observation mission by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (“ODIHR”), Azerbaijan’s 2020 elections were marked by rampant electoral violations. At the close of the polls, it emerged that the vote share had barely changed since 2015. The New Azerbaijan Party won 64 seats in Parliament, compared to 69 seats in the previous election. There were some superficial changes, such as the election of Erkin Gadirli, a prominent member of the opposition Republican Alternative Party (ReAl), but this can hardly be considered to be a genuine advance for the democratic process in Azerbaijan. In previous elections, the Government has typically permitted a few oppositionists to be elected in order to maintain a veneer of fairness and pluralism.
Throughout Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet history, elections have been carefully orchestrated affairs. Most voters know the results of an election before they go to the polls. Observation missions from the ODIHR have never declared that an election in the country has adhered to international standards. The European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”) has found numerous violations of the right to free elections concerning Azerbaijan’s 2005 and 2010 ballots. Its judgments have, to date, not been addressed by the Azerbaijani Government. They remain pending implementation before the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (“CoM”) under the name of the Namat Aliyev group of cases.
There were, however, some compelling developments in the February 2020 elections. The country witnessed a significant increase in public interest for political engagement, and in demands for the entire electoral process to be independently observed. The elections were distinguished by the visibility of new figures, including prominent members of civil society, such as human rights defenders, bloggers, lawyers, and youth activists. According to data gathered by the Baku-based Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre (EMDS), unlike previous elections, the number of self-nominated candidates exceeded the number of candidates nominated by political parties.
Azerbaijan’s repressive political climate prevented any serious changes to the balance of power in Parliament in the context of the recent elections. No significant progress has been achieved in terms of the democratisation of the political process or the prevailing environment for free expression, peaceful assembly and association, both before and during the election campaign. The Popular Front Party, which is one of the main opposition parties in Azerbaijan, decided to boycott the elections due to the restrictive environment, whereas a resurgent civil society saw this as a new possibility to, if not win power, then at least create additional space for active political engagement. The elections were also an opportunity for civil society to affirm its ongoing existence in the face of Government repression.
Just a few days before the elections, some independent candidates, mostly drawn from the ranks of civil society, were summoned to police stations and subjected to psychological intimidation. During the election, numerous journalists and observers were beaten, prevented from entering polling stations or expelled from them. A lawyer for one of the candidates died from a heart attack during a confrontation with polling station workers during a vote count.
Other candidates, including a number of prominent human rights defenders, were prevented from standing in the February elections due to their existing criminal records, despite ECtHR rulings that have determined that their detentions were politically-motivated. Azerbaijan’s failure to implement these judgments has since resulted in fresh violations of individual rights.
The so-called Ilgar Mammadov group of cases comprises eight Azerbaijani applicants, most of whom are government critics and human rights defenders. They were all arrested and prosecuted as part of a wider crackdown on civil society in Azerbaijan in 2013-2014. In respect of each of the applicants, the ECtHR found violations of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”), noting “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 CoM has subsequently, repeatedly scrutinised the proper implementation of these judgments by Azerbaijan. In September 2019, it called upon the Azerbaijani Government to immediately eliminate all the remaining consequences of the criminal charges by quashing all convictions brought against the applicants and deleting their criminal records.
One of the applicants in the group is Rasul Jafarov, a prominent human rights defender who is the chairman of the Human Rights Club, a non-governmental organisation specialising in the protection of human rights in Azerbaijan. He was unlawfully arrested and sentenced to six and half years’ of imprisonment in 2015. In 2016, the ECtHR ruled that his detention had been politically-motivated, and he was released from prison on the same day. Despite this, his criminal record has not yet been erased by the Azerbaijani authorities. As a result, Jafarov was prevented from standing as a candidate in the February 2020 elections under prohibitions of domestic law. In conjunction with EHRAC, he subsequently filed a submission to the CoM in January 2020, drawing attention to the authorities’ failure to comply with the previous decision of the body.
Intigam Aliyev, one of Azerbaijan’s most well-known human rights defenders, is another applicant in the Ilgar Mammadov group. In 2018, the ECtHR ruled that his pre-trial detention in 2014 was politically-motivated and aimed at punishing him for his human rights work. He too remains negatively impacted by his criminal record. Aliyev initially planned to stand as an independent candidate, but ultimately did not register.
During a visit to Azerbaijan, the PACE pre-electoral delegation expressed its concerns that the Government’s non-enforcement of ECtHR judgments calls into question the constitutional right of its citizens to participate freely in the election. On 30 January 2020, PACE adopted a new resolution on political prisoners in Azerbaijan, calling upon the authorities to take measures in order to fully implement the ECtHR judgment, and to provide a genuinely competitive environment where all applicants are able to stand as candidates in elections. The Council of Europe’s rapporteur on political prisoners in Azerbaijan condemned the authorities’ failure to implement judgments of the ECtHR before the deadline for candidate registrations, claiming that this would “call into question the whole democratic basis of the validity of those elections.” In response to the PACE resolution, President Aliyev dismissed its recommendations by stating that “the latest resolution adopted in connection with Azerbaijan has no meaning for us; for us it has no more value than a piece of paper. We do not accept any of the far-fetched accusations contained in it and will not fulfil any of their “requirements.””
Only time will reveal the real reasons as to why the ruling party chose to call these snap elections, not least because it seems clear that these elections did not bring noticeable changes to the balance of power in Azerbaijan. In the run-up to the poll, the Government created confusion by allowing some candidates to register and conduct campaigns, whilst excluding others from the competition.
One thing remains clear – the situation for civil society in Azerbaijan remains dire. The active participation of members of civil society in Azerbaijan’s politics, as well as their efforts to create space for public discussion, had caused some people to be hopeful. But, yet again, the absence of democratic competition in these elections marked that hope out as premature. The Government continues to refuse to implement ECtHR judgments and comply with international standards. This appears obvious from the response of President Aliyev to PACE’s resolution. The Government simply does not want to improve the situation. Pressure from international bodies is proving insufficient to tackle the systematic crackdown on rights and freedoms in Azerbaijan.
 “Azerbaijanis vote on Sunday. Here are 4 things you need to know about the surprising snap election”, The Washington Post, 7 February 2020.
 “Parlament seçkilərində ilkin nəticələr açıqlanıb (Siyahı)” Azadliq Radio, 10 February 2020.
 “Preliminary results show almost no change in Azerbaijan parliament”, OC Media, 9 February 2020.
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“Journalists and observers ‘attacked’ in Azerbaijani parliament elections”, OC Media, 9 February 2020.
“Candidate’s lawyer dies during vote count after ‘disputing result’”, OC Media, 10 February 2020.
 “General environment not appropriate for democratic elections, says PACE pre-electoral delegation to Azerbaijan”, Council of Europe News, 24 January 2020.
 Resolution 2322 of PACE “Reported cases of political prisoners in Azerbaijan”, 30 January 2020.
 “President Ilham Aliyev receives Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu”, APA, 6 February 2020.