Title

Smith Denounces Azerbaijan Law Criminalizing Online ‘Insults’ To President

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

WASHINGTON—Following the amendment of Azerbaijan's criminal code last week, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) made the following statement:

“Make no mistake, anyone imprisoned under the new provisions of Azerbaijan’s criminal code – which make online ‘insults’ of the president a punishable offense – will be a political prisoner.  These new provisions clearly violate international human rights standards and Azerbaijan’s OSCE commitments. I urge the government of Azerbaijan to repeal these provisions and to release political prisoners, including Ilgar Mammadov, Seymur Haziyev, and Abdul Abilov, who have been wrongly jailed for criticizing the government.”

Chairman Smith is the sponsor of the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 (H.R. 4264), a bill he introduced to draw attention to the systematic efforts of the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups.

In addition to denying U.S. visas to senior leaders of the Government of Azerbaijan, those who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership, and members of the security or judicial branches, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act also expresses the sense of Congress that financial penalties should be considered. Sanctions could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections.

Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
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202.225.1901
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    WASHINGTON—In response to today’s sentencing of eight youth activists associated with NIDA in Azerbaijan, and the detention of leading journalists and human rights advocates, the leadership of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) today called on the Government of Azerbaijan to respect the rule of law and its human rights commitments. Regarding the trial of the NIDA activists, Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, stated: “The entirety of the legal proceedings against these young men is troubling not only for the lack of coherence in the government’s case, but also because there are credible allegations that the arrests and the subsequent charges are politically motivated and aimed at silencing criticism of the government. I am extremely concerned at the imposition of these lengthy sentences and am anxious for the health and well-being of these young men who are on hunger strike. I call on the Government of Azerbaijan to review the cases for prosecutorial misconduct and ensure that the rule of law and justice is carried out in these cases.” The Co-Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), expressed his concern about the arrest of journalist Rauf Mirqadirov on charges of spying for Armenia, as well as the detention and investigation of Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif Yunus. “These detentions follow a string of guilty verdicts in similar cases against critics of the government. This is a troubling pattern. I urge the government of Azerbaijan, a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to review these proceedings with a view toward releasing the eight activists – and to recommit itself to the rule of law. The OSCE has many times demonstrated the validity of its founding idea – that respect for human rights fosters stability and security.” The young men, Shahin Novruzlu, Mammad Azizov, Bakhtiyar Guliyev, Rashad Hasanov, Uzeyir Mammadli, Rashadat Akhundov, Zaur Gurbanlı and Ilkin Rustamzada were sentenced today to prison terms ranging from six to 8 years on charges related to weapons and drug possession, charges that are widely believed to be fabricated as a means to intimidate and silence them. All eight activists have been in pre-trial detention for over one year and started a hunger strike in protest of their detention and the charges brought against them. Rauf Mirqadirov is a well-respected journalist who writes critically of many governments, including Azerbaijan. He was arrested after being deported from Turkey to Azerbaijan, and has since been charged by the Government of Azerbaijan with espionage. Leyla Yunus is the founder and director of the Peace and Democracy Institute and long-time human rights advocate who has been vocal about promoting people-to-people ties with Armenia.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Cites Deterioration of Media Freedoms across OSCE Region

    WASHINGTON—In advance of World Press Freedom Day, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) and U.S. Representative Chris Smith (NJ), Co-Chairman of the Commission, addressed the deterioration of media freedom in Ukraine, and the continued presence of criminal defamation:  On the situation in Ukraine, Chairman Cardin stated: “I am deeply concerned by the rapidly degenerating state of media freedom precipitated by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Pro-Russian militias continue to harass, intimidate, and censor both Ukrainian and foreign journalists reporting on the situation in an attempt to quell criticism of separatist-instigated violence and upheaval. Free and independent media is a crucial component of the commitments adopted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which Russia and Ukraine are participating States. I urge Russia to respect media independence and freedom in its own territory as well as in Ukraine.” “Many countries in the OSCE region continue to limit speech to an extraordinary degree,” said Co-Chairman Smith. “I’m particularly concerned by the rise of criminal defamation laws which make it increasingly difficult, and even dangerous, to criticize those in power. These libel and insult laws have an absolutely chilling effect on robust inquiry and the ability to hold politicians and others accountable. I commend the efforts of the OSCE and other organizations to call attention to these and other attacks against freedom of press. A strong and independent media, free from political pressure and censorship, is fundamental to sustainable and accountable democracy.” The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media reports regularly to the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna, including on developments in Ukraine. In advance of World Press Freedom Day, the Commission also noted concern about media freedom in the following countries: UKRAINE: In the town of Slavyansk, over 40 individuals, including many reporters, have been abducted by separatists and held hostage in various makeshift prisons. In the Donbas region, pro-Russian armed forces discontinued digital broadcasting of Ukrainian TV channels and replaced them with Russian ones, mirroring the disruption of Ukrainian press by Russian forces in Crimea. There have been several accounts of journalists being physically intimidated while reporting both in the field and within their offices. TURKEY: Turkey imprisoned more journalists in 2013 than any other country. Currently, legislation is going into effect in Turkey that expands the powers of secret services and stipulates 10 year prison sentences for journalists who publish leaked information. In the last few months, Turkey undertook an immense crackdown on social media, particularly by banning access to Twitter and YouTube. MACEDONIA: In Macedonia, media coverage, largely unbalanced in favor of the ruling party and against the opposition, was a leading criticism of the conduct of last week’s presidential and parliamentary elections. This bias is symptomatic of the great regression in media freedom noted in Macedonia in recent years. Journalists and news sources not allied with the government tend to face increased scrutiny and legal hurdles. KAZAKHSTAN: Recent changes to Kazakhstan’s legislation are likely to further restrict media and access to the Internet. New rules control what the media can report during a state of emergency; a new code criminalizes “dissemination of false information” that harms “interests of society or of the state”; and pending legislation would allow the government to shut websites and other communication networks if they disseminate “harmful” information or call for “extremist” activities. Kazakhstan also has closed virtually all independent newspapers for minor infractions of publishing regulations or on charges of extremism. CROATIA: In Croatia, where the legal definition of “insult” is vague and open to arbitrary enforcement, there are currently over 40 pending criminal insult cases against journalists. This situation, whether or not the cases result in convictions, could lead to increased self-censorship in the media. AZERBAIJAN: The status of press and media in Azerbaijan is decidedly not free. Criminal defamation is still punishable with up to three years in prison. Media and NGO movements that aim to create space for media freedom have been checked at every turn, through various techniques ranging from ignoring lawsuits seeking access to information, to pressing criminal charges on journalists. Most recently, Azerbaijani journalist Rauf Mirkadyrov was arrested and charged with espionage. 

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