March 14, 2016
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear President Obama,
We, the undersigned members of the Sport for Rights coalition, are writing to urge you not to invite President Aliyev for a White House meeting or photo opportunity when he is in Washington, D.C. for the Nuclear Security Summit. We believe that such an invitation at this time would send the wrong message that the government of Azerbaijan will pay no diplomatic or political consequences for its unprecedented human rights crackdown.
We urge you to make clear to President Aliyev that a White House visit could only happen after the Azerbaijani government has taken concrete steps to end the crackdown. These include immediately and unconditionally releasing the human rights defenders, journalists, political activists, bloggers, and others who are behind bars on politically motivated charges; dropping the politically motivated criminal investigation against a number of NGOs and ceasing the pressure against them; repealing regressive legislation restricting the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association in Azerbaijan; and allowing the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to re-open its Baku bureau and stopping restrictions on its reporting in the country.
Azerbaijan is in its worst human rights crisis in the country’s post-Soviet history. Particularly since President Aliyev’s re-election to a third term in October 2013, the Azerbaijani government has worked relentlessly and systematically to silence almost all voices of criticism and dissent. The authorities have targeted journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, lawyers, politicians, and youth activists using tactics ranging from harassment, threats, and blackmail, to physical attack through proxies, and imprisonment. As a result, numerous human rights defenders, political activists, and journalists were given long prison terms following politically motivated and unfair trials. Civil society is largely paralyzed. Azerbaijan’s broadcast media remains completely dominated by the state, the few remaining independent publications are struggling to survive, and journalists operate in a climate of fear.
These abuses have been extensively documented, including by the U.S. State Department in its annual Human Rights Reports and in numerous public statements. You personally commented in September 2014 on laws in Azerbaijan that “make it incredibly difficult for NGOs even to operate.” Since then, these laws have been further amended to introduce even more intrusive controls over the funding of NGOs. This, together with other restrictive and intrusive laws and the criminal investigations noted above, make it all but impossible for many groups to carry out independent human rights work in Azerbaijan.
This crackdown led Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) to introduce the Azerbaijan Democracy Act, which proposes individual sanctions against senior Azerbaijani government officials involved in the crackdown until those imprisoned for their political or religious beliefs or expression have been released and the repression against civil society ends.
A potential White House visit should be made conditional on:
- Immediately and unconditionally releasing journalists Khadija Ismayilova, Nijat Aliyev, Araz Guliyev, Parviz Hashimli, Seymur Hezi, Hilal Mammadov, Rauf Mirkadirov, and Tofig Yagublu; human rights defenders Intigam Aliyev, Rasul Jafarov, Taleh Khasmammadov, and Anar Mammadli; opposition REAL movement leader Ilgar Mammadov, whose release has been ordered by the European Court of Human Rights; and the dozens of other journalists, bloggers, lawyers, youth activists, politicians, and religious followers jailed for political reasons in Azerbaijan. Also, immediately lifting the travel ban against human rights defenders Leyla and Arif Yunus, and quashing their criminal convictions.
- Immediately dropping the criminal investigation against a number of NGOs working on issues related to democracy and human rights, and ceasing the pressure against them.
- Repealing regressive amendments restricting the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association in Azerbaijan, such as those made to the Law on Grants, the Law on NGOs, the Law on the Registration of State Entities, the Law on Mass Media, and the Code of Administrative Violations.
- Allowing Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to re-open its Baku bureau and stopping restrictions on its reporting in the country.
We also urge you to ensure that the U.S. government, in all of its bilateral and multilateral engagement with Azerbaijan, makes clear that meaningful partnership can only move forward with a genuine commitment from the Azerbaijani government to uphold fundamental rights and freedoms, and calls on the Azerbaijani government to take the specific steps outlined above as a demonstration of that commitment.
We thank you for your attention to the serious and worsening human rights situation in Azerbaijan, and remain ready to engage further with your office on these important issues.
Rebecca Vincent, Coordinator, Sport for Rights campaign
Katie Morris, Head of Europe and Central Asia, ARTICLE 19
Rignam Wangkhang, Campaigns and Advocacy Officer, Canadian Journalists for
Robert Hårdh, Executive Director, Civil Rights Defenders
Courtney Radsch, Advocacy Director, Committee to Protect Journalists
Maran Turner, Executive Director, Freedom Now
Danuta Przywara, President of the Board, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights
Florian Irminger, Head of Advocacy, Human Rights House Foundation
Sarah Margon, Washington Director, Human Rights Watch
Jodie Ginsberg, Chief Executive, Index on Censorship
Emin Huseynov, Director, Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety
Jesper Højberg, Executive Director, International Media Support
Brigitte Dufour, Director, International Partnership for Human Rights
Petra Havlikova, Project Coordinator of the Women’s Rights Are Human Rights
Pepijn Gerrits, Executive Director, Netherlands Helsinki Committee
Bjørn Engesland, Secretary General, Norwegian Helsinki Committee
Karin Karlekar, Director, Free Expression Programs, PEN America
Emma Hughes, Strategy Director, Platform
Aleksandra Antonowicz-Cyglicka, Head of Programme, Action for the Global
South, Polish Green Network
CC: Vice President Joe Biden
Secretary of State John Kerry