Azerbaijan’s referendum, which was held on September 26, has faced international criticism for leading to greater civil repression. The referendum was held on 29 draft amendments to the constitution, all of which were designed to give unprecedented power to the already authoritarian government. The lead-up to the referendum has seen a new wave of human rights violations, public intimidation, arrests, and threats targeting political activist groups in order to silence criticisms of the Azerbaijani government.
According to Amnesty International, Azerbaijan has a continuous record of violating international standards of human rights, in particular, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association. Already this month, three political activists from the youth-led Republican Alternative Movement have been arrested for launching a petition against the referendum while several members from other political parties have been put in pre-trial and administrative detention. Police have detained activists demonstrating for the cancellation of the referendum and calling for more democratic reforms. In another incident, political activist Baxtiyar Haciyev was fined and prevented from leaving the country to attend an OSCE conference on human rights. “ The referendum has been accompanied by arrests and intimidation from the beginning. Those who have attempted to criticize the campaign against these proposals have faced assaults and harassment by the authorities” said Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International.
The Azerbaijani government has defended itself, stating the restrictions on public freedom are intended to create public order and morality. However, Ane Tusvik Bonde from the Human Rights House Foundation said that “We fear that we are now seeing the beginning of a new wave in the crackdown on civil society and opposition in direct relation to the referendum.”
The proposed amendments in the referendum include increasing the presidential term from five years to seven years, creating two new vice-president positions to be appointed by the president rather than the parliament, and creating the presidential power to dissolve parliament at will. These changes would undoubtedly extend and strengthen the reign of the current president, Ilham Aliyev, who took over from his father, who was the former president in 2003. Under the proposed constitutional changes, Aliyev would not have to run another election until 2020.
In defense of the referendum, Aliyev claimed the proposed constitutional amendments would allow for political and economic reforms and improve government efficiency. However, in a statement from the Council of Europe’s constitutional watchdog, the Venice Commission, Azerbaijan’s referendum has been criticized for upsetting the country’s balance of power, lacking proper parliamentary debate, and for its repression of dissenting voices.
Denis Krivosheev from Amnesty International has further expressed that Azerbaijan should respect its human rights obligations and allow every person freedom of expression.