Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree on Friday to pardon 634 convicts, but included only 12 people local rights groups considered political prisoners. So while he pardoned several religious activists and opposition party members who had only a few days left behind bars, the move unexpectedly and disappointingly excluded dozens of prominent civil and political activists, bloggers, and journalists who remain jailed following politically motivated prosecutions.
Among those still imprisoned are journalist and blogger Mehman Huseynov, who is serving two years on charges of defaming a police station after he publicly described abuse he endured there; journalist Afgan Mukhtarli, who was kidnapped a year ago from neighboring Georgia and illegally transferred to Azerbaijan, where he was sentenced to six years on bogus smuggling and other charges; and Ilgar Mammadov, one of Azerbaijan’s most prominent opposition figures and government critics, who remains in prison despite the European Court judgement finding his detention illegal. Giyas Ibrahimov and Bayram Mammadov, youth activists serving 10-year prison sentences for spraying political graffiti on the former president’s monument, are also still imprisoned.
And the list goes on.
The president’s highly anticipated decree came during Azerbaijan’s centennial celebration of its 1918 independence from the Russian Empire. For months, Azerbaijani officials used the impending decree to deter criticism of its rights record, suggesting it would deliver big results.
It didn’t and with wrongfully jailed activists still behind bars in Azerbaijan, it is essential the European Union apply extra pressure to see their release. The EU should link their freedom to any closer political and economic partnership, which is currently being negotiated between the EU and Azerbaijan. This would be in line with the recent decision of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, which called on the EU to take significant steps “as regards the release of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience.” Additionally, members of the European Parliament reminded Azerbaijani authorities that “no comprehensive agreement will be ratified with a country that does not respect fundamental EU values and rights.”
These activists anticipated Aliyev’s pardon would grant them their freedom, which was unjustly taken away in punishment for their activism. The EU needs now to be unequivocal and insist on their release and for Azerbaijan to end its crackdown on critics.