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* Council of Europe rights chief: no progress since August
* Criticises arrests, convictions of journalists, activists
* Authorities say Azerbaijan enjoys full freedom of speech
By Margarita Antidze
TBILISI, April 23 Human rights are deteriorating
in Azerbaijan, a European watchdog said on Wednesday, calling on
the authorities to uphold regional standards and expressing
concerns over what it says is a "worrying pattern" of abuse.
Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim former Soviet republic, has been
governed by President Ilham Aliyev since he succeeded his father
in 2003. It has been courted by the West because of its role as
an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas to Europe.
Rights groups accuse Azerbaijan of muzzling dissent and
jailing opponents, charges the government denies.
Nils Muiznieks, human rights commissioner at the 47-nation
non-executive Council of Europe, said he had seen no progress
towards greater freedom of expression since he published his
previous report in August 2013.
"Freedom of expression, assembly and association are
deteriorating in Azerbaijan," he said in Wednesday's report.
"Unjustified and selective criminal prosecution of people
expressing dissenting views, including journalists, bloggers and
activists, continues unabated," Muiznieks said in the report.
He cited the conviction of journalist, academic and minority
rights defender Hilal Mammadov, a deputy head of the opposition
Musavat Party, Tofig Yagublu, and the leader of rights group
Republican Alternative, Ilgar Mammadov.
Charges against Bizim Yol journalist, Pavriz Hashimli,
online activist Abdul Abilov and blogger Omar Mammadov "lack
credibility", he said.
Last week, Azeri police also arrested a prominent journalist
Rauf Mirkadyrov, and prosecutors charged him with espionage.
"The recent arrest of Rauf Mirkadyrov cannot but reinforce
the concerns I have about the persisting worrying pattern in
Azerbaijan, which tries to muzzle free and dissenting opinions,"
Muiznieks said in an emailed response to Reuters questions.
Mirkadyrov was a political correspondent at the independent
Azeri Russian-language newspaper Zerkalo (Mirror) in Turkey,
from where he was deported last week.
The commissioner also said that the repeated questioning of
Azeri journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who is known for her
corruption investigations, was "another disturbing example of
intimidation of the press". He also cited the arrest of Anar
Mammadli, head of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies
Centre, who was under investigation for an alleged tax evasion
and abuse of power.
Muiznieks said that extra restrictions on the activities of
non-governmental organisations, dispersal of peaceful rallies
and violation of property rights were also areas of concern.
"A fundamental issue in Azerbaijan is the need to ensure a
genuine and impartial review of cases relating to fundamental
freedoms by the judiciary," he said in his responses to Reuters.
The government says the country's nine million people enjoy
full freedom of speech and access to a lively opposition press.
"There are no problems with human rights in Azerbaijan...
Those, who talk about human rights violations in our country,
are biased and try to blacken Azerbaijan's image," deputy
executive secretary of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, Mubariz
(Additional reporting by Nailia Bagirova; Writing by Margarita
Antidze; Editing by Louise Ireland)