The October 2003 presidential elections in Azerbaijan—the first since Azerbaijan became a member of the Council of Europe—were supposed to herald a new era of democracy and respect for human rights in the country. As the ten-year presidency of Heidar Aliev began to draw to a close, many in Azerbaijan—buoyed by visible, significant support by the international community for free elections in the country—began to hope that after years of political repression, they would finally have the chance to participate in free and fair elections.

These hopes were crushed by the government's determination to ensure the succession of President Aliev's son, Ilham Aliev, to the presidency. The pre-election environment was manipulated to ensure that the opposition could not campaign effectively, with police violence and arbitrary arrests serving to intimidate the population and opposition supporters. On voting day, the government carried out a well-organized campaign of fraud throughout the country to ensure a victory for Ilham Aliev, right in front of the largest international election monitoring team ever deployed in the country. When post-election violence erupted, the government responded with brutal and excessive force, unleashing its security forces to beat hundreds of demonstrators unconscious, and killing at least one protester.

Today, Azerbaijan is experiencing its gravest human rights crisis of the past decade. In the aftermath of the election, nearly one thousand people were arrested—among them opposition leaders, local opposition party members, activists of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who supported the opposition, journalists, and election officials and observers who challenged the fraud. Serious beatings at police stations were routine, and many opposition leaders held at the Organized Crime Unit (OCU) of the Ministry of Interior endured torture, including through electric shocks, severe beatings, and threats of rape.

By mid-January 2004, more than one hundred opposition leaders and supporters remained in detention, facing charges that could lead to up to twelve years of imprisonment. More than one hundred opposition supporters and their relatives have been fired from their jobs in retaliation for their political affiliation and activities, and opposition activists throughout Azerbaijan face constant police harassment. The government of Azerbaijan is attempting to crush the opposition with few attempts to hide it.

Government repression of opposition politicians and supporters violates Azerbaijan's obligations as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR). Opposition activists and supporters have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other mistreatment, and lack of access to counsel among other due process violations. Abuses related to the election campaign and its aftermath include violation of the rights to freedom of assembly, expression, and to participate in public affairs. The government's actions also contravene its commitments under the Copenhagen document of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE),[9] which elaborates standards for the conduct of free and fair elections, and its obligations as a member state of the Council of Europe.

This report documents the pre-election, election-day, and post-election violations of human rights in Azerbaijan. The findings of this report are based on two missions to Azerbaijan, the first from September 29 to October 18, 2003, and the second from November 11 to November 25, 2003. During these missions, Human Rights Watch researchers conducted interviews with more than 200 victims and witnesses of human rights abuses. Research was conducted in the capital, Baku, as well as in cities and villages around the country, including Ali Bairamli, Gotchay, Ganja, Jalilabad, Khajmaz, Lankaran, Masalli, Mingechevir, Saatli, Salian, Sekhi, Sumgait, and Zagatala, and through phone interviews with many other areas. The report does not address human rights violations in Nakhchivan, an enclave of Azerbaijan wedged between Armenia and Iran, because safe access to that area was not available. However, reports from local activists consistently suggest that the situation in Nakhchivan is even more severe than in other areas of Azerbaijan.

Human Rights Watch calls on the government immediately to release those opposition supporters who have been arbitrarily arrested, to thoroughly investigate acts of torture alleged by those arrested in the aftermath of the election, and to conduct a special investigation of police units, particularly the OCU, which have been implicated in torture in the post-election period. Azerbaijan is in a profound political crisis created by its flagrant violations of international law and the rights of its citizens. We urge the government to undertake political reforms that will ensure free and fair elections in the future. The absolute power of the presidency must give way to a more balanced political system, in which parliament, the judiciary, and municipal authorities are granted real power, which can check abuses of authority by the presidency.

The international community needs to intensify pressure on Azerbaijan to improve its human rights record. Immediate action is needed from the government to restore the public confidence in the country's political system, by establishing, with international cooperation, a truly independent investigation into election abuses. Allegations of torture and police abuse have to be investigated and prosecuted, and those dismissed persons allowed to return to work. Arbitrary arrests must stop, and opposition leaders who have been arbitrarily detained must be released.


World watches in silence as Azerbaijan wipes out Armenian culture

Western governments have failed to condemn the destruction of a unique medieval cemetery by Azerbaijani soldiers

By Lucian Harris
Posted 25 May 2006

LONDON. A delegation of European members of Parliament was last month refused access to Djulfa, in the Nakhichevan region of Azerbaijan, to investigate reports that an ancient Armenian Christian cemetery has been destroyed by Azerbaijani soldiers.

The delegation of ten MEPs from the commission on EU-Armenia parliamentary co-operation travelled to Armenia on 17 April following a resolution passed by the EP’s conference of presidents on 6 April. An EP spokesman told The Art Newspaper that when the party tried to enter Nakhichevan, it was “opposed by the Azerbaijan authorities”.

This was despite the Muslim country’s outright denial that the cemetery has been destroyed—and despite the fact that Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe and thus committed to respecting cultural heritage.

According to witnesses, as quoted in Armenian reports, in a three-day operation last December, Azerbaijani soldiers armed with sledgehammers obliterated the remnants of the Djulfa cemetery (known as Jugha in Armenian). Until the early 20th century it contained around 10,000 khachkars, dedicatory monuments unique to medieval Armenian culture. They are typically carved with a cross surrounded by intricate interlacing floral designs.

A great number of khachkars, the majority of which date from the 15th to 16th centuries, were destroyed in 1903-04 during the construction of a railway, and by the early 1970s only 2,707 were recorded.

Armenian culture has always had a precarious existence sandwiched between Russia and the Islamic spheres of Turkey and Iran. The Armenians are still fighting to get acknowledgement of the genocide of their people by the Ottoman Turks which reached its peak in 1915. After 1921, when the southern enclaves of Nakhichevan and Nagorno Karabakh were absorbed into Soviet Azerbaijan, many Armenians fled the area and much of their cultural heritage was destroyed. By the late 1980s when the Soviet Union crumbled, less than 4,000 Armenians remained in Nakhichevan—so few that the exclave avoided the ethnic warfare that exploded in Karabakh where a larger Armenian population remained under the administration of Muslim Azerbaijan.

The Azerbaijani army began clearing the Jugha cemetery in 1998, removing 800 of the khachkars before complaints by Unesco brought a temporary halt. But the destruction commenced again in November 2002, and by the time the incident was written up by Icomos in its World Report on Monuments and Sites in Danger for that year, the 1500-year-old cemetery was described as “completely flattened”. It is not clear exactly how many khachkars were left, but on 14 December 2005, witnesses in Armenian reports said that soldiers had demolished the remaining stones, loading them onto trucks and dumping them in the river, actions that were filmed from across the river in Iran by an Armenian Film crew, and aired on the Boston-based online television station Hairenik.

Armenians say the destruction of the Jugha cemetery represents the final move in Azerbaijan’s systematic cleansing of Armenian cultural heritage from Nakhichevan, mostly carried out between 1998 and 2002.

On a visit to Armenia in March, the director of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Mikhail Piotrovsky, whose mother is Armenian, reacted to the destruction by likening it to the Taleban’s obliteration of the Bamiyan Buddhas. His comments elicited an angry response in the Azerbaijani press. However, the lack of international condemnation of Azerbaijan’s actions has been a source of frustration to many Armenians. Baroness Cox, a long-standing campaigner for the protection of Armenian heritage in Azerbaijan who has urged the British government to take action, told The Art Newspaper that, despite the influential Armenian Diaspora, both the US and UK administrations are more concerned with cultivating close relations with oil-rich Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey, than with Armenia.

A response issued by the Embassy of Azerbaijan in Brussels in January, insisted that Armenian allegations were made “to delude the international community” and detract attention from “atrocities committed by the Armenian troops in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, where no single Azerbaijani monument has been left undamaged”. It also contained an implied historical claim on the Jugha cemetery stating that it was not Armenian but created by “Caucasian Albanians”.

The Azerbaijani allegations, which claim the destruction of hundreds of mosques, religious schools, cemeteries and museums in the Shusha, Yerevan, Zangazur and Icmiadzin districts of Armenia, have undoubtedly compounded the reluctance of international organisations to get involved in a situation described to The Art Newspaper by Guido Carducci, the head of Unesco’s International Standards Section, as “a political hot potato”.

According to Baroness Cox, even during the war, mosques in Armenia were generally protected by the Christian population, but with so many emotive claims and counter claims being made, and both sides accusing each other of rewriting history, non-partisan monitoring and verification of all alleged cultural crimes seems more important than ever. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Mikhail Piotrovsky said: “Any destruction of the cultural heritage is a crime, whether that heritage be Armenian, Russian, Azerbaijani, or Iraqi. The cultural heritage belongs to the entire world, not just to one nation.”


Ayatollah issues fatwa calling for two journalists in Azerbaijan to be killed

December 3, 2006

Reporters without borders

Reporters Without Borders voiced deep concern today about a fatwa (religious decree) issued by an Iranian ayatollah calling for two journalists in neighbouring Azerbaijan to be killed for an allegedly blasphemous article. The fatwa’s targets are Rafiq Nazar Oughlo Taghizadh of the Azerbaijani fortnightly Sanat (“Industry”) and his editor Samir Sadaght Oughlo.

“We urge the Iranian authorities to calm people down as there has been a great deal of tension since the publication of Mohammed cartoons in a Danish newspaper last February,” the press freedom organisation said. “We also ask the Azerbaijani authorities to do everything necessary to protect these two journalists.”

Reporters Without Borders added: “It is deeply shocking and completely unacceptable that religious fundamentalists should call for the murder of two people who just expressed their opinions.”

The offending article was written by Taghizadh, 56, for the newspaper’s 6 November issue. Entitled “Europe and us,” its claim that European values were superior to those of Muslim countries sparked outrage in both Azerbaijan (a Muslim country) and Iran.

Fazel Lankarani (photo), one of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s leading ayatollah’s, issued the fatwa in response to appeals for advice from Azerbaijani Muslims. Posted on his website ( on 25 November, it calls for both the “apostate” journalist who wrote the article and the editor who published it to be killed.