Presidential elections in October 2003 were manipulated by Azerbaijani authorities to ensure that Ilham Aliev succeeded his autocratic father Heidar Aliev, who had already held the presidency for ten years. The fraudulent elections plunged Azerbaijan into its gravest human rights crisis in more than ten years.
- Presidential Elections
- State Violence
- Political Prisoners
- Social Organizations
- Press Freedom
- Key International Actors
During the 2003 election, the opposition was prevented from effectively campaigning, and the pre-election climate was marked by police abuse and arbitrary arrests. When violent protests erupted after the election, the government launched a massive and brutal crackdown involving excessive force, arbitrary arrests, torture and beatings, and politically-motivated dismissals.
At this writing, more than one hundred opposition leaders remained in detention, facing charges that could result in jail terms of up to twelve years. Many had been charged with organizing mass disorder and violence against the security forces. Among the national opposition leaders in detention were four deputy chairs of the main Musavat opposition party; the secretary-general of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party; the chairman of the Khalq (“Nation”) party, who is a former prime minister; the chair of the Umid (“Hope”) party, who is a member of parliament; and the chair of the Ahrar party.
At the root of Azerbaijan’s political crisis, and its associated human rights abuses, is the almost complete monopoly of power in the institution of the presidency. The presidency dominates the national political scene, but also exerts hegemonic power at the local level through the direct appointment of local executive authorities who are almost the sole source of authority at the town and village level. National institutions such as parliament, and local municipal authorities, have almost no power in comparison. The dominance of presidential power effectively excludes the opposition from power-sharing arrangements.
Torture, police abuse, and excessive use of force by the security forces are widespread in Azerbaijan. Even the most peaceful forms of political expression, such as the unfurling of political banners or the shouting of political slogans, are frequently met with the use of force and arbitrary arrest. Severe beatings at police stations are routine and frequently take place in the presence of senior police officials. Of particular concern is the endemic use of torture, including electric shock torture and threats of rape, by the Organized Crime Unit of the Ministry of Interior, where many senior opposition leaders were tortured during the crackdown following the October 2003 presidential elections.
Azerbaijan continues to imprison many political prisoners, and experts from the Council of Europe have denounced recent retrials of some senior political prisons as a “sham” controlled by the presidential authorities rather than the judiciary. The judiciary in Azerbaijan is controlled by the presidency and lacks independence, and is often complicit in police abuses by sentencing persons on clearly falsified charges and refusing to entertain even the most serious evidence of torture.
Civil society continues to be tightly controlled in Azerbaijan, and the Azerbaijani authorities use onerous registration procedures to arbitrarily deny registration to NGOs whose absolute loyalty to the administration cannot be guaranteed. Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, a major religious leader and the head of the Center for the Protection of Conscience and Religious Freedom, was arrested after the October 15 elections and remains in detention, as does Itimar Asadov, the chair of the Karabakh Invalids Association.
Although Azerbaijan has a lively opposition press, regular police harassment undermines media freedom. Police frequently beat and arbitrarily detain journalists, even after they have identified themselves as journalists. The authorities have intimidated printing presses that print opposition papers, and police often harass and threaten newspaper vendors who sell opposition newspapers. Officials have filed several politically motivated lawsuits against journalists.
Key International Actors
The international community invested heavily in trying to prevent mass fraud during the October 2003 presidential elections, deploying one of its largest-ever international election monitoring missions under the leadership of the OSCE and funding major technical improvements such as transparent election boxes. The fact that the Azerbaijani authorities carried out mass fraud in the face of this international commitment was a major setback for international efforts to improve the country’s human rights record. International actors were widely seen by the Azerbaijani population as the “guarantor” of a free and fair election, and the relative silence of the international community in the face of mass fraud and the post-election crackdown severely challenged the trust the Azerbaijani population had placed in it.
The Council of Europe has played a constructive role in attempting to address the human rights problems in Azerbaijan, pressing for release of political prisoners, greater political participation for the opposition, and a devolution of political power away from the presidency. The OSCE has also played an important role in attempting to improve human rights conditions in Azerbaijan, but suffered a setback in relations with Azerbaijani authorities due to the widespread fraud committed in front of its monitors during the October 2003 Presidential elections.
United States policy toward Azerbaijan has focused on Azerbaijan’s support for America’s war against terror and oil interests. The U.S. role has been marred by weak responses to rights abuses, including those accompanying the 2003 election and its aftermath.