As European and Azerbaijani leaders gather in Brussels following Azerbaijan’s release of scores of wrongfully imprisoned writers, journalists, writers and activists, the European Union (EU) must ensure that more is done to improve protections for freedom of expression in Azerbaijan, PEN International said today.

On 4 April 2019, Brussels will host the 16th EU-Azerbaijan Cooperation Council, an annual meeting that allows them to review and highlight the strength of their relationship. They are notably poised to discuss Azerbaijan’s human rights record. Both parties are also negotiating a new and ambitious agreement that would further deepen their ties.

‘The recent pardoning and release of hundreds of prisoners in Azerbaijan is a long-awaited step in the right direction, but it must now be followed by much-needed broader reforms. The upcoming EU-Azerbaijan Cooperation Council provides a crucial opportunity to urge the Azerbaijani authorities to make further efforts to uphold fundamental rights and freedoms. EU leaders must seize it’, said Carles Torner, Executive Director of PEN International.

Last month, PEN International welcomed President Ilham Aliyev’s decision to pardon 431 prisoners, many of them detained on politically motivated grounds, to mark the Novruz Holiday. In particular, the PEN community celebrated the release of Rashad Ramazanov, an Azerbaijani blogger, writer and honorary member of PEN Canada who spent almost six years in prison on fabricated charges of illegal possession and sale of drugs.

While this pardon was a welcome move, Azerbaijani human rights groups estimate that at least 74 activists, journalists and opposition politicians remain unjustly imprisoned. Among them is Afgan Mukhtarli, a journalist and political activist who was sentenced to six years in prison in January 2018 after he was kidnapped in Georgia in May 2017 and forcibly taken to Azerbaijan. The EU must call on the Azerbaijani authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all those held solely for peacefully expressing their views.

There are serious and credible allegations of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment against those detained in Azerbaijan for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, which are not adequately investigated. The EU should urge Azerbaijan to order independent and impartial investigations into all allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, and to bring those responsible to justice.

Azerbaijan’s legal framework remains highly restrictive. Defamation is a criminal offence and those who openly criticize the authorities continue to face arrest and imprisonment. The Law on Mass Media also allows the government to close online media outlets found to have published defamatory content twice in a year, and websites are frequently blocked by the authorities, who justify their censorship on grounds of insult or their threat to national security.

Mainstream media is still under tight government control. The majority of independent media outlets have been forced to close or go into exile, with those still operating inside the country are subject to police raids, financial pressures, and prosecution of journalists and editors on politically-motivated charges. The EU must urge Azerbaijan to decriminalize defamation fully, and to support and rigorously uphold an independent and pluralistic media sector.

Three years ago, Azerbaijan’s much-lauded release of prisoners was followed by a relentless crackdown on critical voices. To secure meaningful, long-term improvements to the right to freedom of expression in Azerbaijan, the EU must continue to put pressure on the Azerbaijani authorities to release all those unjustly jailed, and amend laws and regulations that continue to restrict freedom of expression and persecute writers and journalists. Only then will Azerbaijan be on the path to genuine reforms.

For further details contact Aurélia Dondo at PEN International, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, UK Tel: +44 (0) 20 7405 0338 email: Aurelia.dondo@pen-international.org