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On September 20, 2018, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled in the case of Aliyev v. Azerbaijan against Azerbaijan for the unjust detention of lawyer and human rights advocate, Intigam Aliyev. Mr. Aliyev brought his case against Azerbaijan on October 16, 2014 alleging several violations of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). The ECtHR unanimously found violations of most of the articles alleged in the complaint. In punishment, the ECtHR sanctioned Azerbaijan several thousand Euros and issued injunctive orders for structural reforms within the country. Despite the result in this case and several cases similar to it, there has been very little change in the human rights condition in Azerbaijan in the twenty-seven years since its independence from the Soviet Union. Going forward, if Azerbaijan hopes to cement its place in the international community, the Azerbaijani leadership must make structural changes in how human rights organizations and activists are treated.

Walking through the bustling capital of Baku, Azerbaijan’s rapid economic and cultural development stands in stark contrast with its Soviet Union-style attitude to human rights and human rights advocates. International organizations have criticized the ruling party’s detention of human rights activists and journalists as a means of controlling the official narrative and pushing for progress. Azerbaijan, party to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), is ostensibly committed to enforcing the ECHR’s standards through national law. In reality, several human right’s actors have brought cases against Azerbaijan in the ECtHR. Despite international criticism and with rulings and sanctions from the ECtHR, the government has not changed the way it treats its critics.

In the present case, Mr. Aliyev is a prominent and well-respected human rights lawyer in Azerbaijan. He served as the chairman of the Legal Education Society (LES), a national non-profit with more than sixty lawyers who educated both civil society and other lawyers on human rights issues, published reports exposing human rights abuses in the country, and provided legal services. Having provided legal assistance and resources in Azerbaijan for decades, Mr. Aliyev also represented applicants in front of the ECtHR. In his work as chairman of LES, he provided training seminars in the isolated Nakhichevan providence, where there were only ten defense attorneys for the whole region in 2003.

In June 2014, Mr. Aliyev participated in a side event at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe by speaking on an LES-produced report regarding human rights abuses in Azerbaijan. Shortly after, in August, Azerbaijani authorities arrested Mr. Aliyev and charged him with illegal entrepreneurship, large-scale tax evasion, and aggravated abuse of power for allegedly failing to register LES and some of its grants with the correct government institutions. In December, the Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s Office further charged Mr. Aliyev with abuse of power and forgery, allegedly for financial inconsistencies in LES’s work. Azerbaijani authorities detained Mr. Aliyev for four months pending the start of his trial in December 2014. Starting a sequence of appeals on August 11, 2014, Mr. Aliyev saw four subsequent appeals dismissed without consideration. While in detention, his health quickly deteriorated as his needs for medical attention were not met. In April 2015, the Baku Grave Crimes Court sentenced Mr. Aliyev to seven years of imprisonment. The next March, the Azerbaijani president signed an order releasing Mr. Aliyev and other human rights activists who were detained.

Mr. Aliyev’s case before the ECtHR hinged on four main complaints: lack of consideration for his appeals, his detention conditions, the lack of appropriate medical care he received while detained, and the search of his home and private papers. His lawyers argued that these activities by the State violated the following articles of the ECHR: Article 2 (right to life), Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment), Article 5 §§ 1 and 3 (right to liberty and security, lack of relevant and sufficient reasons for continued detention), Article 5 § 4 (review of detention), Article 8 (right to respect for privacy and family life), Article 18 (limitation on use of restriction on rights), and Article 11 (freedom of assembly and association). The ECtHR unanimously found violations of Article 3 as it pertained to his pre-trial detention, Article 5 §§ 1 and 4, Article 8, and Article 18. The judgment ordered the state to pay damages in the amount of 20,000 Euros and 6,150 Euros for the cost of litigation to Mr. Aliyev. The ECtHR also ordered Azerbaijan to take steps to “ensure the eradication of retaliatory prosecutions and misuse of criminal law” against human rights defenders.

The ECtHR injunctive order mirrors others condemning Azerbaijan for the troubling use of national law to detain activists and human rights promoters. The ECtHR has ruled on other cases brought by people who were unjustly detained.  One victim, vindicated by the ECtHR, was former presidential hopeful Ilgar Mammadov. Azerbaijani authorities charged Mr. Mammadov with mass disorder for his political activities and protest organizing in 2013. In 2014, the ECtHR held unanimously that his detention violated Articles 5, 6, and 18 of the ECHR. Similarly, in Jafarov v. Azerbaijan, Rasul Jafarov was arrested and detained because of his human rights activism through his organization, Human Rights Club. Mr. Jafarov and his colleagues compiled reports on the rights of prisoners in Azerbaijan and submitted shadow reports to UN treaty bodies. In Mr. Jafarov’s case before the ECtHR, just like in Aliyev and Mammadov, the ECtHR found violations of Articles 5 and 18. Together, these cases illustrate Azerbaijan’s repeated violation of the same articles of the ECHR.

In response to Mr. Aliyev’s case, the Azerbaijani government argued to the ECtHR that the detention conditions as described by Mr. Aliyev were not as bad as he claimed and that his health was closely monitored. They further argued that his detention was justified based on the national court’s consideration of the charges. In August of 2014, the Azerbaijani head of the Department of Social and Political Issues stated in an interview that several NGOs in Azerbaijan, including Mr. Aliyev’s NGO, were relying on foreign money to place themselves above national law by avoiding proper registration of their organizations, paying their taxes, and filing false financial statements. Other Azerbaijani officials believed that these groups were “betray[ing] their motherland” in an attempt to embarrass Azerbaijan and take down the leadership.

Given the Azerbaijan’s history in front of the ECtHR, sanctions and injunctive orders are not effective in deterring the leadership’s treatment of human rights defenders. The abuses suffered by Mr. Aliyev are well documented and the government’s arguments, while galvanizing, are not supported in fact, as supported by his deteriorating health while in prison and the lack of evidence provided for his conviction. In their ruling, the ECtHR also criticized the government’s regulation that governs non-profit organizations and their operation. The ECtHR stated that the stringent nature of these rules and requirements is clearly an attempt to limit the viability of national human rights organizations. However, as in other similar cases and in Aliyev, the monetary sanctions and directives have not deterred the state from continuing to detain activists. If the court continues to subject the government of Azerbaijan to similar sanctions going forward, it will prove to be only a symbolic gesture with no substantial effects.

Social and geopolitical dynamics also contribute to the ineffective nature of the ECtHR ruling. The ECtHR’s decision likely will not make any difference in the human rights conditions that Azerbaijani nationals face. Media in the country is tightly controlled by the state. My search of several English language news site resulted in articles highlighting international praise for Mr. Aliyev’s release with no mention of his arrest, trials, or charges. Searches of Azerbaijani language websites returned only informational articles about his trial and conviction. Besides those tied to the international human rights community, Azerbaijani citizens likely do not know about his case or others like it. There is likely limited awareness that human rights are an issue and thus likely limited widespread public pressure to make changes to the human rights violations facing activists and journalists in the country. The lack of journalistic freedom creates hurdles to addressing human rights issues within the country.

Despite Azerbaijan’s history of unjust prosecution of media and activists, the United States has historically cooperated with Azerbaijan on security issues as well as on economic projects. In an effort to limit Russian and Iranian influence, the United States and European countries are hesitant to alienate Azerbaijan, which serves as an important ally. European leaders would like to establish Azerbaijan as a source of energy, as an alternative to Russia and would like to limit growing Iranian power. Specifically, Azerbaijan plays a role in tempering Russian and Iranian regional aspirations from a security perspective.

Though Azerbaijan is a growing power in terms of combatting terrorism and producing oil, its strategic value stands in contrast with its treatment of human rights advocates. Going forward the Azerbaijani government must allow for diversity of opinion in the media. It must also end the unjust arrest and conviction of those who speak out against the government and release all of those who have been unjustly imprisoned. Additionally, criminal law cannot justify detentions in ways that blatantly violate the ECHR. Finally, the government should relax the extremely restrictive regulations faced by the non-profit sector and make it easier for organizations to provide the services and training to civil society.

If Azerbaijan seeks to forge alliances with other European nations and other international allies, these States should stipulate that Azerbaijan respect and uphold international human rights norms, especially their commitments to the ECHR. As long as Azerbaijan’s allies continue to downplay violations in order to enhance their interests in security or oil access, there is little incentive for Azerbaijan to rectify the human rights situation. Blatant abuses continue despite the result in the Aliyev case and others. Azerbaijan has shown they will simply pay sanctions and move forward, without the intention to implement change. Just as Azerbaijan’s leaders advance from their Soviet Union past in economic and cultural arenas, they must also stop silencing activists, lawyers, and journalists working to advance human rights.