A United Nations initiative called Internet Governance Forum is about to have its annual forum in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, to discuss, among other issues, freedom of speech.
Yet in Azerbaijan, people who exercise this fundamental right to criticize President Ilham Aliyev, his family or government risk being threatened, attacked or imprisoned – whether they do so on- or off-line.
“They don’t jail all the bloggers. They pick up two or three who go – in their view – too far,” explains Emin Mill, an Azerbaijani digital dissenter who served time in prison for “hooliganism.”
“There is a deep irony to holding an international forum on internet governance in Azerbaijan,” comments my colleague Max Tucker at the Amnesty International headquarters in London. “This is a country where the government intercepts individuals’ correspondence at a whim, imprisons bloggers, and portrays social-networkers as mentally ill.”
This is not the first ironic event involving human rights that Azerbaijan has hosted. In December 2008, the cabinet culture ministers of the Council of Europe held their meeting in Baku, where the host, President Aliyev, welcomed the guests by proclaiming that “cultural monuments [in Azerbaijan] are duly preserved.” That statement was made exactly three years after Azerbaijan’s military deployed over a hundred soldiers to a remote region to annihilate the world’s largest medieval Armenian cemetery with its thousands of intricately carved cross-stones, the craftsmanship of which is a UNESCO Intangible Heritage.
Of course, we are not calling on the Internet Governance Forum to cancel their meeting in Baku. On the contrary, we are calling on the government of Azerbaijan to use this opportunity to reverse its policy of suppressing freedom of expression and other human rights. This is the message that the Forum should deliver.