Three days ago, on Monday the 26th of September, Azerbaijan held a national referendum on a number of constitutional amendments. On Tuesday, the Central Election Commission claimed, that all had received the support of voters by a wide margin. The constitutional changes at stake give further powers to the already powerful President Ilham Aliyev – including prolonging the term of office from 5 to 7 years, as well as abolishing the minimum age for future presidential candidates. Furthermore, new posts ,such as First Vice President and Vice President will be introduced, the President will obtain the power to declare early presidential elections at will, and his ability to dissolve the parliament will be expanded.
This is not the first time that Azerbaijan changes its constitution. In 2009, a referendum abolished the term limits for the President, a decision criticized by the Council of Europe Venice Commission.
Radio Free Europe highlights that, establishing a constitutional frame for the consolidation of powers of the President, the changes further weakens the country’s already low human rights record. Property rights will be restricted on the ground of “social justice and effective land use”. The freedom of assembly can also be limited to preserve “public order and morality”.
The tense situation in the neighborhood – including the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia and the coup d’état attempt against the Turkish President in last July – are argued to be two reasons for the President’s aspiration to be allowed to deploy armed forces without parliamentary approval. Another important factor behind the proposed changes is argued to be the deteriorating Azeri economy, followed by the drop in oil revenues.
Some experts report that few of these constitutional changes are controversial or even contradictory with the Constitution itself and this referendum opens politics to president’s teenage son, Heydar Aliyev.
At the same time, on September 20, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe gave a negative verdict on the constitutional referendum. And Turan News Agency reports that, according to the Venice Commission ‘many proposed amendments would severely upset the balance of power by giving “unprecedented” powers to the President. For example, the extension of the presidential mandate from five to seven years “cannot be justified” given the already very strong position of the President, who since 2009 can be re-elected without term limits.
Another reform gives the President power to dissolve parliament, which does not only make political dissent in parliament “largely ineffective”, according to the opinion, but also affects the independence of the judiciary, since parliament’s role in the approval of judges will be reduced.
The Venice Commission experts were “particularly worried” by the introduction of the figure of unelected Vice-Presidents, who may at some moment govern the country, and the President’s prerogative to declare early presidential elections at his convenience.
The opinion also criticizes the procedure of the referendum as having lacked proper debate in parliament and having been carried out too quickly and without real public discussion beforehand.
Nevertheless, on September 21, head of the Legislation and Legal Expertise Department of the Presidential Administration Shahin Aliyev commented on the Venice Commission’s opinion. He said the opinion was politically motivated as suggested by its hasty preparation. According to Shahin Aliyev, the establishment of the institute of vice-presidency conforms to democratic standards.
Also, Parliament’s Chairman of the Committee of Foreign and Inter Parliamentary relations, Samad Sayidov says that “today the stability of the state and its effective governance is strategically important. From this point of view, a referendum that sees the amendments adopted will ensure the more stable, more dynamic and consistent development of the country”.
While his visit to Baku on September 9, Vice-President of the European Parliament Ryszard Czarnecki said: “we will respect the result of this referendum. Because for us the will of your nation is the most important”.
Besides that, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) also sent its seven-member ‘assessment mission’, headed by Aleksandar Nikoloski to observe the referendum on September 26, 2016.
The fact that the Azeri authorities use all their tools to make legal and material obstacles for opposition campaigns against referendum. But it is also the fact that, the authorities have already assured a “legal” and “peaceful” atmosphere for organizing this referendum.
Recently, the UN Special Rapporteur Michel Forst called upon Azerbaijan to “rethink [its] punitive approach to civil society.”
In its own intervention at the Human Rights Council, HRHF spoke of the new wave of arrests in the run-up to referendum to be held on 26 September 2016, in which the authorities have arrested activists such as Natig Jafarli, Elshan Gasimov, Togrul Ismayilov, Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, and Elgiz Gahraman for criticising the referendum and participating in peaceful protests and actions.
Last month, police arrested three political activists from the opposition group, Republican Alternative (REAL) after they launched a petition against the referendum and the proposed changes to the Constitution.
Natig Jafarli, well-known economist in Azerbaijan, was arrested on August 12 and charged by a court in Baku for “illegal business” and “abuse of official powers, when such actions lead to serious consequences or are committed with the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election (referendum)” and was sentenced to 4-months of pre-trial detention. He was released on September 9, however the criminal charges and case against him remain pending. Amnesty International consider this is politically motivated prosecution.
Before N.Jafarli’s arrest, Republican Alternative Movement had been campaigning against the referendum and had begun to collect signatures as a referendum campaign group. N.Jafarli is co-founder and executive director of the Republican Alternative Movement (ReAl) since the imprisonment of its leader Ilgar Mammadov, whose detention has been described by the European Court of Human Rights as a method to “silence or punish [him] for criticizing the government,” while the Council of Europe has repeatedly called for the release of Ilgar Mammadov, who is now in his fourth year of imprisonment.
As Amnesty International reports that all major elections in recent years in Azerbaijan have been marked by crackdowns on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. Especially, in the last three years, virtually all outspoken human rights defenders and numerious prominent government critics, including human rights lawyers and investigative journalists, have been targeted through arrest and imprisonment on fabricated charges. Local human rights groups estimate that more than 70 people remain imprisoned in Azerbaijan on politically motivated charges.
“Azerbaijani authorities continuously violate human rights ahead of elections. Every single electoral campaign turns out to be a campaign of intimidation of civil society,” says Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International. “The Azerbaijani authorities must fully respect its international human rights obligations and give every person including their critics the opportunity to express their views freely.”
Threats, arrests and prosecutions of those who have voiced criticism of the proposed amendments to the Constitution have been a defining feature of the authorities. “The referendum has been accompanied by arrests and intimidation from the beginning. Those who have attempted to criticise and campaign against these proposals have faced assaults and harassment by the authorities,” says Denis Krivosheev.
Experts believe that the constitutional changes would strengthen authoritarianism in the country and will cause problems to private property (property rights).
The amendments will also lead to violations of the right to freedom of association. While in practice, public assemblies have already been prohibited in central Baku, the proposed amendments will grant the government even more power to interfere with the freedom of assembly in violation of international standards.
Asif Orujlu is a member of IFLRY’s Caucasus Programme team