Azerbaijan accused of media crackdown before hosting Cop29

<span>Ilham Aliyev is serving a fifth term as president after elections recorded him winning 92% of the vote.</span><span>Photograph: AP</span>
Ilham Aliyev is serving a fifth term as president after elections recorded him winning 92% of the vote.Photograph: AP

Azerbaijan’s government has been accused of cracking down on media and civil society activism before the country’s hosting of crucial UN climate talks later this year.

Human Rights Watch has found at least 25 instances of the arrest or sentencing of journalists and activists in the past year, almost all of whom remain in custody.

Many campaigners and civil society groups have spoken of their concerns that climate advocacy was being stifled amid a media clampdown. Azerbaijan will host the UN Cop29 climate summit over two weeks in November, when nearly 200 governments, including dozens of heads of state, are expected to thrash out a new global approach to providing the funds needed to tackle the climate crisis.

Azerbaijan, an authoritarian state where media and civic freedoms are curtailed, is regarded as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, coming 154th out of 180 states in a ranking by Transparency International last year. There is little effective political opposition and the president, Ilham Aliyev, won more than 92% of the vote in elections in February to take a fifth consecutive term. His father was Heydar Aliyev, who led the country under Soviet rule and was installed as president after a military coup in 1993 followed the breakup of the eastern bloc.

Azerbaijan is also accused of holding political prisoners. A war with neighbouring Armenia last year over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region ended with 100,000 people being displaced from their homes.

One of Aliyev’s top advisers said a few weeks ago that the government intended to make Cop29 a “Cop of peace”, and to call for a Cop truce in which hostilities would be suspended around the world for the duration of the talks.

Campaigners raised their concerns at a pre-Cop29 meeting of governments in Bonn, where the secretariat for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is based. Officials from around the world are in the midst of two weeks of meetings to discuss the key issues that will dominate the Cop29 summit, including the vexed question of how to provide sufficient finance to help the developing world cut greenhouse gas emissions and cope with the impacts of global heating.

A protest was held at the entrance to the Bonn talks on Friday evening – the midpoint of the discussions – calling for the release of 23 Armenian political prisoners held in Azerbaijan. Some protesters accused the government of genocide.

Myrto Tilianaki, a senior environmental advocate at Human Rights Watch, highlighted the case of Anar Mammadli, a member of the Human Rights Houses network, who was arrested on 29 April on smuggling charges. He is a founder of the Climate of Justice Initiative, which aims to use Cop29 to push for environmental justice in Azerbaijan.

Ibad Bayramov is campaigning for the release of his father, Gubad Ibadoghlu, a research fellow at the London School of Economics and civil rights activist, who was imprisoned last summer and whose health has badly deteriorated, requiring urgent medical treatment which his family say he is not receiving.

Bayramov said: “Cop29 lends legitimacy on the world stage to the government’s illegitimate imprisonment of my father. As his health has deteriorated to extreme levels, western governments continue to meet weekly with their Azerbaijani counterparts regarding Cop29. Meaningful progress on climate change cannot be achieved in a country where individuals like my father are imprisoned and tortured for speaking out.”

Paul Polman, a former CEO of Unilever who now campaigns on climate and human rights issues, said he wanted to use Cop29 as an opportunity for the international community to talk about Azerbaijan’s treatment of prisoners, about which he has serious concerns. “I hope that Cop29 can be used as an opening,” he said. “But it’s appalling that human rights has not been on the agenda. After Cop29, there will not be a spotlight on Azerbaijan’s record.”

Azerbaijan’s government has rebutted the activists’ claims. A spokesperson said: “We totally reject the claims about [a] crackdown against human rights activists and journalists in Azerbaijan. No one is persecuted in Azerbaijan because of political beliefs or activities.

“As in any rule-of-law based society, any detention or imprisonment of a person who is suspected in illegal activities is subject to the requirements of investigation and fair trial, based on relevant laws and regulations. Instead of waiting for the results of criminal cases and investigations, as well as court rulings … to call on Azerbaijan to release suspects is in open contradiction with legal procedures.

“As Cop29 president, Azerbaijan lays out its vision and pillars for a successful year of climate negotiations, encouraging an open and direct dialogue among all nations, and we believe all the layers of society should contribute to successful efforts to tackle the climate change challenge.”

Azerbaijan’s presidency follows two other consecutive Cops – the term stands for conference of the parties, under the UNFCCC, the 1992 parent treaty to the Paris agreement – in countries with authoritarian leaders and poor records on human rights: the United Arab Emirates hosted Cop28 in Dubai last year, where protests were muted, and Egypt hosted Cop27 in 2022. The UN guarantees some freedom of expression for protesters within the confines of the Cop during the fortnight it runs, but has little influence on the hosts’ behaviour outside its precincts.

Tilianaki said: “Holding Cop29 in Azerbaijan raises serious concerns about the possibility of advancing ambitious climate action in negotiations. Governments attending the Bonn preparatory meeting should call out Azerbaijan for its repression of civil society and make clear that they will actively confront any attempts to weaken robust climate policies.”