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Azerbaijan’s ongoing crackdown against journalists and activists critical of the government has seen scores of critics imprisoned. Less well known are the stories of those who escape jail, but are still subjected to tremendous pressure — including restriction of their ability to travel abroad.
‘I have been banned from leaving the country for two years. I have been repeatedly invited to trainings for journalists in other countries. I was selected to participate in programmes to improve journalists’ capacity. But I cannot take advantage of these opportunities.’
These are the words of freelance journalist Aytan Farhadova. She told OC Media that since 2015, she has been banned from leaving Azerbaijan by the Prosecutor’s Office. Aytan claims that this ban is unjustified and that it is a manifestation of the authorities’ pressure on freedom of speech.
‘A financial investigation was carried out regarding the activities of [Germany-based Azerbaijani news platform] Meydan TV. A criminal case was launched against me and a few other journalists whose articles were published on Meydan TV. We were banned from leaving the country in order to be summoned for questioning as witnesses. The interrogation happened more than a year ago. According to the law, the ban should have been removed. In reality, the purpose is to pressure people who use their right to free speech’, Aytan says.
The ban doesn’t affect only journalists. At different times, many political and civic activists have been banned from the leaving the country. Some of them found out only when they tried to cross the border. This was the case for political activist Natig Adilov.
Adilov is a member of the opposition Popular Front Party. He told OC Media that two years ago he was removed from a train by Azerbaijani border police on his way to neighbouring Georgia.
‘I was going to Georgia by train. At the border, I was removed from the train. They didn’t give me any explanation. I asked them to give me a written notice stating the reason, they just pulled my arm. Finally, they wrote that my passport had been suspended, but they did not explain why. All of this is associated with my political activities’, Natig said.
The Azerbaijani authorities employ many methods of exercising pressure on activists. For example, a member of the Youth Movement NIDA Turgut Gambar told OC Media that each time he’s crossing the border, the authorities make him wait and fill in redundant paperwork.
‘They look at my passport and immediately start a search. They take my passport, make me wait without any explanation, perform a protracted control. Every time they make me fill in a declaration on how much money I have on me. They don’t do it to other citizens. They try to create psychological tension and to pressure me because of my political activity’, Turgut said.
Courts serve the government
Independent lawyer Fariz Namazli told OC Media that this practice shows that the Azerbaijani government wants to keep the activists under control by not letting them leave the country and exercising psychological pressure to them. He is currently involved in the case of journalist Aytan Farhadova’s ban on leaving the country.
‘The ban was imposed by the Nasimi District Court of Baku and was then upheld by Baku Court of Appeal. Local courts are partial, because the ban is politically motivated. If the witness was questioned, according to the law, they cannot be banned from leaving the country. However, the courts carry out the government’s orders, they don’t do what’s prescribed by the law. For this reason, we have applied to the European Court of Human Rights’, Namazli said.
Baku Court of Appeal didn’t respond to OC Media’s request for a comment. The court’s employee who asked for anonymity said that this court case was already closed and the court can’t give any statement to the media.
The secretary of the press service of the Prosecutor General’s Office, Eldar Sultanov gave us a short comment in which he said that if journalists and activists have a complaint, they should approach the prosecutor and let the issue be investigated.
When is a ban legal?
Lawyer Alasgar Mammadli told OC Media that according to the law, a ban can be only imposed by a court order as a result of a criminal case or tax debt, yet in practice, bans are often imposed without court orders.
‘In European countries, the decision to impose restrictions on crossing the border is made by courts. This is also the rule in Azerbaijan, but in the practice, the opposite happens. At present, if we look at what’s happening in the country, these cases are not legally sound cases, such as the banning activists from leaving the country, because there are no criminal proceedings against them. Even in case of an interrogation of a witness, the ban cannot continue for an indefinite period. There is no legal legitimacy’, Mammadli said.
The lawyer said that in case of ban, one has to immediately apply to the court and demand the lawlessness to stop and to bring the abusers to justice.
Aytan Farhadova hopes the European Court of Human Rights will revoke the ban, so she can travel abroad again.
[Read also a feature on Chai Khana: Hostages in their own country]