The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Azerbaijan’s refusal to register the Human Rights Club (HRC), an NGO led by prominent human rights defender Rasul Jafarov, breached the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). It found that the Azerbaijani law was wrongly applied, offering no protection from arbitrariness, and that the domestic courts failed to provide adequate judicial oversight of the Ministry of Justice. HRC and its founders were represented before the European Court by EHRAC.
HRC was founded in 2010 by Rasul Jafarov, Emin Huseynov and Sabuhi Gafarov. In July 2011 they applied to the Ministry of Justice to register HRC, which would then enable it to open a bank account, receive funding, and hire staff. However, their application was repeatedly rejected and returned by the Ministry, which cited different ‘deficiencies’ in their application each time. In January 2012, HRC’s founders complained to the domestic courts that the Ministry had unlawfully refused to register their organisations; however, the courts dismissed the appeal as ungrounded. They brought their complaint to Strasbourg in March 2014.
What did the Court say?
In its judgment, the European Court found a violation of the right to freedom of association under Article 11 of the ECHR, in that the Ministry of Justice had wrongly applied the domestic laws, resulting in an unlawful delay and the de facto inability of the HRC to be registered and to function as intended. It also found that the domestic courts had “failed to give any legal assessment” of the procedural requirements for registration, or “of the registering authority’s exercise of its functions”, nor did they explain whether the Ministry of Justice had complied with those requirements.
“HRC will definitely apply for state registration immediately after the judgment becomes final, and I hope that the Government of Azerbaijan will not miss this opportunity and implement the judgment by registering the HRC.”
Why does this case matter?
Two years later, the Ministry’s refusal to register the HRC led to the imprisonment of HRC Chairman Rasul Jafarov. In August 2014, he was arrested and in April 2015 convicted of illegal entrepreneurship, large-scale tax evasion and abuse of power, for running the HRC as an unregistered NGO and for receiving allegedly unregistered grants and donations for various HRC projects. On 17 March 2016, in a separate judgment, the European Court found that Rasul’s arrest and detention had no legal basis whatsoever, and that by arresting him, the authorities aimed “to silence and punish” him for his human rights activities. He was released from prison by Presidential decree on the same day, having spent 20 months in prison. In September 2017, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, the body charged with monitoring the implementation of judgments from the European Court of Human Rights, called on the Azerbaijani authorities to re-open proceedings into Rasul’s criminal conviction.
This case is not an isolated one and is representative of the Government’s crackdown on human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and civil society organisations through criminalisation of their work since 2014. In its 2016 judgment on Rasul’s arrest and detention, the European Court relied on “the general context of the increasingly harsh and restrictive legislative regulation of NGO activity and funding” leading to “an NGO activist being prosecuted”, and “a larger campaign to ‘crack down on human rights defenders in Azerbaijan, which had intensified over the summer of 2014’”, finding his detention was politically motivated (paras 159, 161). Similar findings have been found in the cases of NGO leaders Intigam Aliyev, also represented by EHRAC, in September 2018 and Anar Mammadli in April 2018, with applications of other human rights defenders awaiting judgment.