Deprivation of citizenship marks repressive new low for Azerbaijan

The metamorphosis of denationalisation into an instrument for silencing human rights defenders marks a new low point in Azerbaijan’s record of oppression

Imagine there is a competition among press freedom predators for the most sophisticated tactic to silence a critical voice.  Which tactic would win? Politically motivated imprisonment? Effective, but predictable. Surveillance and threats? Dull, with a somewhat limited effect. Murder? Too extreme, except for the most dangerous opponents, investigative journalists for example.

What about taking away a person’s identity, removing their citizenship? Bingo. Who is the winner? In the Council of Europe area, that would be Azerbaijan.

On Wednesday, the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner, Dunja Mijatović, published her third-party intervention for the European Court of Human Rights (Court) in the case of Emin Huseynov v. Azerbaijan.

Emin Huseynov, now living in exile in Switzerland, is a prominent journalist and human rights defender. He is the director and co-founder of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), a leading Azerbaijani NGO set up in 2006 to protect freedom of expression and promote independent online reporting. His complaint to the Court argues that he was illegally stripped of his citizenship by the Azerbaijani government in retaliation for his critical views.

In her intervention, Mijatović argues that “deprivation of nationality might also be used as a tool of punishment to silence those expressing dissenting views” and that “reprisals against human rights defenders in Azerbaijan should immediately stop and all persons who are in detention because of their views expressed or legitimate civic activity should be released”– and she is not alone.

In their joint intervention, human rights groups International Media Support (IMS), IFEX, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Senior Lawyers Project (ISLP) also address the use of denationalisation as a tool of political persecution in Huseynov’s case. Their submission outlines how deprivation of citizenship contributes to silencing dissenting voices within the wider context of oppression of journalists, media and civil society actors in Azerbaijan. The denationalisation of Emin Huseynov violates his right to freedom of expression by preventing his full participation in public debate.

It’s important to consider the context in which the tactic is being used. Azerbaijan is one of the worst jailers of journalists and human rights defenders in the world, and the techniques used by authorities to constrain civil society deserve international condemnation. In recent years, the country has witnessed an increase in incarceration, torture, harassment, threats, travel bans, prosecution and imprisonment, all to silence peaceful critics. Emin’s family has been deeply entrenched in the struggle for freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. His younger brother, Mehman Huseynov, an anti-corruption blogger, was recently harassed and tortured by Azerbaijani authorities before being thrown in jail, where he currently remains.

The metamorphosis of denationalisation into an instrument for silencing human rights defenders marks a new low point in Azerbaijan’s record of civic oppression.

Membership in the Council of Europe provides the Azerbaijani regime with the legitimacy it requires to seek favorable loans from the international financial institutions, host mega-events, and hold prestigious positions within international organisations – all of which, in turn, help to further legitimise its actions.

It is therefore all the more important that member states within the Council of Europe who value genuine democracy demand that this oppression end. Deprivation of citizenship, where the purpose of such a measure is to stifle open public debate on politically and socially important matters, cannot be condoned.

In Emin Huseynov’s case – as in the case of all journalists, civil society organisation and human rights defenders in oppressive regimes who risk everything to pus back against censorship and injustice – their fight is our fight: the fight for a free and fair world.

About the author: Gulnara Akhundova is a human rights defender and the head of department for global response at International Media Support. Twitter: @gulya_akhundova