When Azerbaijan served as chair of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, it scoffed at the spirit and purpose of the organization and moved vigorously to squash all forms of free speech at home. Now that Baku no longer holds the top spot, civil society activists are worrying about what Azerbaijani authorities will do next.
All civil society actors in Azerbaijan currently are grappling with a daunting dilemma: either stop engaging in rights-related activism or pay a high price, in particular face the prospect of criminal prosecution. Dozens of activists and independent journalists remain behind bars for no reason other than engaging in rights work or tacitly promoting free speech. At the moment, the country’s jails hold at least 90 political prisoners, almost double the number in Belarus and Russia combined. These prisoners of conscience face a variety of cooked-up charges, including hooliganism, drug possession, tax evasion and treason.
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Vugar Gojayev is an Azerbaijani researcher and freelance journalist.