29/04/2020 COVID-19 and Human Rights – Interview with 2017 Laureate Khadija Ismayilova

COVID-19 and Human Rights – Interview with 2017 Laureate Khadija Ismayilova

Human Rights, 29/04/2020

While being the third largest producer of oil in Eurasia and a member of the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan owns a very poor human rights record and scored 168th in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. It is in this context, that Khadija Ismayilova started her investigative journalism in 2009 and exposed a wide range of corrupt and lucrative business deals involving President Aliyev’s family members.

For publishing articles on government corruption, Ismayilova has been subjected to smear campaigns, harassment and fabricated criminal charges, for which she spent a year and a half in prison. Far from being silenced, Ismayilova expanded her work and began advocating for the rights of Azerbaijan’s human rights defenders. In 2017, she received the Right Livelihood Award “for her courage and tenacity in exposing corruption at the highest levels of government through outstanding investigative journalism, in the name of transparency and accountability.” Her courage, professionalism and integrity are required now more than ever, as the government is using the COVID-19 pandemic to silence opposition.

At the time of writing this article, there are a bit over 1,500 cases of COVID-19 in Azerbaijan, the government has put in place a series of social distancing measures, such as banning gatherings of more than 10 people and all nonessential travels to Baku, the capital. It has also introduced an electronic permit system, through which people can request a 2 hours authorisation to leave their home, which is available only once a day. Violators of the lockdown regime face either a fine or detention for up to 30 days. Nevertheless, it has been reported that Azerbaijani authorities are abusing these restrictions to arrest opposition activists and silence governments critics. Today, Khadija Ismayilova gives us more details and shares her view about this worrying situation.

What is the present situation in Azerbaijan and what are the major concerns? 

Azerbaijan does not have high infection figures, the per capita rate is not that high and we have good closure cases. We have not been affected as badly as Italy or Iran. The rules are that we need to send an SMS before leaving the house if you need to do groceries or go to the doctor. However, it gives you a 2 hours permission, which is not enough, especially given the waiting time for most essential services. This permit cannot be extended, and if you are out, you face up to 30 days of arrest. They have arrested slightly over 20 activists for “violating quarantine rules.”  The president clearly stated that he is going to use pandemic measures against the opposition.

Imprisoning people for not respecting social distancing seems a bit of an oxymoron…

Arresting people and taking them into custody is especially dangerous in this time when the rest of the world is discussing releasing prisoners early. Although they did so in Azerbaijan as well, there was a pardon decree that affected over-65 years old prisoners. Only about 100 of them were released, including Akif Chovdarov a former high-level official who had been convicted for taping, listening, kidnapping and torturing people as well as asking ransom for their release, all while he was in government. They did not even apply home arrest or anything. We can assume why the decree was signed in the first place…

What about freedom of press, how has it been impacted by this crisis? And how is your own work limited by this?

At the beginning of the crisis, only accredited journalists could move freely, and I do not have accreditation in Azerbaijan, so I was limited from going out from the beginning. Now, the situation has been further worsened, the pro-government press council gives the list of journalists who have the right to free movement. Since free-minded journalists don’t even recognise the press council as an acceptable accreditation body, they have no access or any way to be put on the list.

It seems like people’s right to information can hardly be fulfilled… is access to health guaranteed at least? 

The situation is not transparent, so it is difficult to testify on the quality of healthcare. The first person who died of coronavirus came from Iran and also had Lupus. When she arrived here, she was then taken to a hospital without quarantine precautions. Then, her health got worse, she was diagnosed with COVID-19 and sent to a specialised hospital, where she passed away. The hospital she first went to was closed soon after, due to infection spreading concerns. The government did not comment or investigated why she was not taken into a quarantine center upon arrival.

It looks to me like the measures do not respect international human rights law standards of necessity, legality and non-discrimination…

While we all agree that the virus has to be fought and that staying in quarantine is important, it should be done following the Constitution. In this case, restrictions of freedom of movement are unconstitutional, because the constitution states that freedom of movement can be restricted only if the state of emergency has been announced, which is not the case.  Another unconstitutional action was the decision to limit the courts’ working regime and only adjudicate urgent matters. This was decided by the presidium of the Supreme Court, which is illegal since only parliament is allowed to do that. The essence of our complaint is that it should be constitutional, if there is a health pandemic, please announce the state of emergency.

In addition, some people have abused the SMS rule and telephone companies have been sharing IMEI codes of those phones with the government agency in charge of coronavirus, which is illegal, it is a violation of the right to privacy. It has therefore become clear that the government is using this to monitor people. Three day before our call, the chairman of the popular front party was deprived of any communication as his devices had been switched off by the government. So he has no way of even requesting a 2-hour permit. His friends brought other sim cards to him, which were blocked too. The government is doing this without going to court, there are no charges against him. This is illegal.

What do you think are the long term risks of the measures presently taken by the government?

The government does not clearly say when quarantine will end, however, the president announced that after COVID-19, there will be a new reality in the country, in which there is no place for opposition. In addition, cases of human rights violations have little prospect even in international litigation, since the government will refer to the public health situation in order to justify them.

The risk in many countries is that special measures adopted amid this pandemic will stay in place even after the end of the emergency. In your opinion, what could be the contribution of the international community, including the Right Livelihood Foundation, to raise awareness and react to such risk?

Dictatorships should be watched closely over how they handle the coronavirus situation, not only in Azerbaijan but in countries such as Hungary as well. There should be some legal opinion produced by the Human Rights Committee or the European Court of Human Rights, making it clear that pandemic measures cannot be abused to suppress human rights. Authoritarian regimes hope that they can abuse the notion of “public health vs human rights” to put pressure on their opponents during the pandemic. There should be some legal instruments to prevent them from doing that and to ensure that any emergency responses to COVID-19 are proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory.