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Council of Europe Says Azerbaijan Must Stop Prosecuting Journalists

Thomas Hammarberg, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights.
A senior Council of Europe official
sharply criticized Azerbaijan's human rights record today, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani
Service reports.

Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg wrote that
"freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly have encountered
serious setbacks in Azerbaijan. Urgent measures must be taken to uphold these
fundamental human rights."

Hammarberg's comments on the rights situation in Azerbaijan were published
today as a follow-up to his June 2010 report on the issue.

Hammarberg, a Swedish diplomat, said he regrets that most of the
recommendations he made to Azerbaijani officials one year ago have not been
implemented. In some cases, he said, steps taken by the authorities have run
counter to Baku's human rights obligations.

"One of my recommendations was to end practices of unjustified or selective
criminal prosecution of journalists or critical opinion makers," he said.
"However, resorting to such methods has apparently not abated. Fabricated
charges have been used to arrest and silence parliamentary candidates,
journalists, and members of youth groups. Such intimidation is inconsistent
with the principles of a democratic society founded on human rights principles
and the rule of law. Measures should be taken to release immediately all
persons imprisoned because of views or opinions expressed."

Hammarberg stressed in his report that an essential step for the protection of
freedom of expression is to decriminalize defamation. He said he is also
concerned by information indicating that in recent months several national and
international NGOs have encountered difficulties in carrying out their
activities in Azerbaijan.

Hammarberg said he is particularly worried about the recent demolition of a
building in which several human rights organizations had their offices.

Another source of concern relates to the wave of arrests of activists and
political opponents in connection with protests held in Baku in March and April.

Hammarberg said he urges Azerbaijani authorities to fully respect the right to
freedom of peaceful assembly in accordance with the case law of the European
Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The report also includes information provided by the Azerbaijani authorities
which says the draft law on defamation is expected to be discussed by the
parliament this month and to be adopted by the end of this year.

Azerbaijani officials also say not a single case on the imprisonment of
journalists on defamation charges has been registered in Azerbaijan since the
end of 2009.

They add that civil society organizations operate freely in Azerbaijan and the
government does not create any obstacles to their activity and the registration
of religious communities is rejected only if there are serious legal violations.

"As to the allegations of arrests of people for attending the rallies, it
should be underlined that they have been arrested only for committing criminal
acts [such as damaging public and private property, violent resistance to
police]," Azerbaijani officials said.

Azerbaijani lawyer Fuad Agayev told RFE/RL today that Hammarberg's report takes
a softer line with regard to the most recent developments in Azerbaijan.

"He points to the demolition of a building housing human rights organizations,
however this demolition covers not only one organization, it's a massive
violation of property rights in Azerbaijan," Agayev said. "The property rights
of thousands of citizens are being violated, those citizens are being treated

Agayev said the authorities present the same position with regard to ECHR
decisions on Azerbaijan.

"The authorities don't lift a finger to investigate reports of inhumane
treatment and torture, but state they are doing their utmost," he said. "The
same holds true with regard to ensuring basic freedoms, including freedom of
assembly and voting rights."

Compiled by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service and O wire.