4.56 pm

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): It is a great privilege to initiate the final debate of the year this afternoon. At the beginning of November, I went to Baku to attend the UN internet governance forum, and I was taken there by Nominet—I wish to put on record my thanks for its generosity.

It might seem strange for the United Nations to hold an internet governance forum in Azerbaijan. The internet is one of the most free means of communication—it was instrumental in facilitating recent political uprisings during the Arab spring—but unfortunately the same cannot be said in Azerbaijan. Before discussing the human rights situation, I wish to take a moment to describe this country on the Caspian. It is a very beautiful, wild and mountainous country in the Caucasus. At no point in its history has Azerbaijan been a liberal democracy, so unfortunately it has no such traditions to recover. From 1805 to 1991, it was part of the Russian empire, latterly of course in the Soviet Union. In fact, it was in Baku that the Tsars imprisoned Stalin. In the last 20 years, the country has prioritised rapid economic development, based on its substantial oil and gas reserves. It is, I am afraid to say, the spiritual home of the 4x4, and it has an unresolved conflict with its neighbour, Armenia.

That context may explain the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, but it certainly does not excuse it. This year, Azerbaijan has played host to two major international events. The first, as many people are aware, was the Eurovision song contest. The second was the UN internet governance forum that I attended. Those two events should have been an opportunity for Azerbaijan to step forward and open up. Unfortunately, the opposite seems to have happened, with the authorities clamping down even more aggressively on journalists and critics of the regime.

At the moment, Baku is plastered with huge posters of President Aliyev, whose father—incidentally—was also president. Most people, when they have photographs taken for political purposes, choose ones that are flattering. Unfortunately, I found President Aliyev’s 6-foot-wide grin more of a crocodile smile.

The petty reality of life in an autocracy was brought home to me on the first morning when all the traffic on the motorway was held up for 20 minutes to allow the official motorcade to pass through, but the problems are far more serious than that. One might expect a Government who are trying to impress the rest of the world to be on their best behaviour, but while I was there the authorities continued to jam the BBC television channel.

5 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)

Helen Goodman: While I was there, the authorities continued to jam the BBC television channel and they held the trial of Avaz Zeynalli, who was accused of

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criticising the regime. The evidence was claimed to have been videoed, but neither the defendant nor his lawyer were shown the film. Finally, they hacked into the computer of Neelie Kroes’s staff while she attended the conference.

There is a long history of violence against journalists in Azerbaijan, which is documented by the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, an Azeri non-governmental organisation. According to the institute, in 2005, Elmar Huseynov, the editor of Monitor, was gunned down in Baku. In 2011, Rafiq Tagi, a critic of Iran and the impact of Islam on Azerbaijan, was stabbed and subsequently died. The level of intolerance is well illustrated by the case of Agil Khalil, who was assaulted and stabbed after investigating reports of trees being burned in an olive grove. In April this year, Idrak Abbasov was attacked by employees of the state oil company of Azerbaijan while filming the destruction of residential properties near an oil field outside Baku. He was beaten unconscious and was in hospital for a month. It is thought that he may have been targeted for exposing human rights abuses in the run-up to the Eurovision song contest. In fact, three weeks previously, he had received The Guardian journalism award at the Index on Censorship freedom of expression awards here in London. There is then the case of Khadija Ismayilova, who I met at the IGF. She had previously worked for Radio Free Europe. Her flat was bugged and a sex video of her, which was filmed secretly, was posted on the internet.

Amnesty International has asked, in particular, that I raise the case of Mehmen Hoseynov, who is facing five years in prison. He is accused of hooliganism for filming a protest on 21 May. Will the Minister raise his case with the Government of Azerbaijan and call for all charges against him to be dropped immediately and unconditionally? Index on Censorship is also concerned about the cases of Minas Sargsyan, Hilal Mamedov, Anar Bayramli, Jamal Ali and Faramaz Novruzoglu. I have e-mailed the Minister with the details of their cases, rather than detaining the House with the long stories attached to them, so that his office can look into them.

Those cases are not isolated incidents; they are part of a systematic repression of free speech in Azerbaijan. In Azerbaijan, defamation is a criminal offence. Media workers are persistently defamed and persecuted. Azerbaijan is the top jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia. Index on Censorship estimates that there are currently 70 political prisoners in Azerbaijani jails. Freedom of expression, assembly and association are limited.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I was personally involved in trying to help during an election in Azerbaijan, but the person I was trying to help was not even allowed to enter the country to stand in the election. Does the hon. Lady agree that, until that sort of thing changes, this will not be a great country?

Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman’s point is particularly pertinent because there will be a presidential election in Azerbaijan in 2013. It would be excellent if we could see some improvement in the openness of Azerbaijani society, because it would give us greater

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confidence that these elections are freely and properly run and that people expressing many different opinions can stand.

The year 2011 also saw mass protests in Baku and Guba. They were put down extremely aggressively and some of the demonstrators were imprisoned. Furthermore, the state controls the conventional media—television, radio and newspapers—in a top-down way. Economic development and urban renewal around Baku has been pursued without regard for individuals’ property rights. The property of hundreds of people has been expropriated to make way for luxury developments, and the Government have forcefully evicted home owners, sometimes in the middle of the night. They have been left homeless and destitute. In Baku, many people still live in a Kafkaesque world where news stands do not sell any newspaper. In this situation, the internet provides a news space, and the Government claim that 60% of Azeri people have broadband access, but the American organisation Freedom House’s assessment is that the net is only half free, because the authorities mount cyber-attacks on dissident websites and arrest bloggers and IT users for their political writings on the web.

As a member of the Council of Europe and signatory of the European convention on human rights, Azerbaijan is not simply breaching human rights, but breaching its international agreements. In fact, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe will be discussing a draft resolution and report by rapporteur Strasser on political prisoners in Azerbaijan in January. The Azeri Government refused to co-operate with rapporteur Strasser, but Amnesty International says that his report is thorough and extensive.

Last week, on 12 December, the Parliamentary Assembly’s monitoring committee said:

“The combination of the restrictive implementation of freedoms with unfair trials and the undue influence of the executive, results in the systemic detention of people who may be considered prisoners of conscience”.

It continued:

“Recently adopted amendments to the Criminal Code…which have increased penalties for”

those involved in

“‘unauthorised’ gatherings…raise concern, as do alleged cases of torture and…the impunity of perpetrators.”

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): As chairman of the all-party group on Azerbaijan, I recognise some of the concerns and challenges that the hon. Lady raises. She talked earlier about the expropriation of property and land, but would she not agree that the expropriation of the land and property of hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis by Armenia in 1992 is also a cause for concern and very wrong?

Helen Goodman: I do not think that an international conflict justifies Government repression of their own people, whether in areas of conflict—some of the cases, about which I have written to the Minister, relate to the Nagorno-Karabakh problems—or elsewhere. The situation there simply does not justify the abuse of human rights of Azerbaijani people across the country and, in particular, in the capital city.

Given the situation and the UK’s strong relationship with Azerbaijan, will the Minister tell us what the British Government are doing to put pressure on

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the Azerbaijanis to improve their human rights record? In particular, will the Government support a strong resolution calling on Azerbaijan to honour its commitments and condemn the violation of basic freedoms—the resolution will be discussed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in January? Will the Minister also support rapporteur Strasser’s report on political prisoners in Azerbaijan?

It is important to remind ourselves that, when the British Government and Parliament stand up for human rights in other places, we do make progress. Last year many of us signed an early-day motion calling for the release of Emin Milli. He was imprisoned after posting a satirical video on YouTube criticising Government spending on importing donkeys from Germany. He was released, came to Britain, was awarded a Chevening scholarship and has just been awarded his master’s degree. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

5.10 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): I thank the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) for introducing today’s debate and my hon. Friends the Members for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) and for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for the interest they have shown.

This is an important issue. The Foreign Secretary has said repeatedly that the defence and promotion of human rights needs to be a central theme in the United Kingdom’s foreign policy. It is important that that priority is reflected in our engagement, both private and public, with all countries in the world where there are human rights concerns and that we should be consistent in having those conversations with leaders of all countries, whether those with which we have few diplomatic or commercial dealings or those—Azerbaijan is a case in point—where there is an important United Kingdom commercial and investment relationship. In replying to the hon. Lady, I am glad of the opportunity to explain the Government’s position and place on record some of the actions that the Government have taken, and continue to take, to try to support human rights defenders and promote a culture of the rule of law and respect for human rights in Azerbaijan.

As the hon. Lady acknowledged, Azerbaijan is a young and fast developing country with an increasing presence on the international stage. It was only 20 years ago that Azerbaijan gained its independence from the Soviet Union. It is a committed contributor to the international security assistance force mission in Afghanistan. Azerbaijan was elected as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in October 2011 and, as the hon. Lady said, this year it hosted the Eurovision song contest. It is natural that, as Azerbaijan starts to secure a higher profile and play a greater role in world affairs, so the world will take a greater interest in Azerbaijan’s progress, including in meeting its international human rights commitments. One of the things I say to many of my ministerial counterparts from other countries when we have conversations about human rights is that we in the United Kingdom sometimes find it uncomfortable or embarrassing when the various international bodies of which we are members hold us to account and challenge us over our record on some aspects of

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international human rights instruments, but that is a part of life in the world community today.

I will look carefully at the texts of the two resolutions that the hon. Lady talked about—from the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe—although obviously I will want to see the final versions of the resolutions that emerge from the respective parliamentary debates. However, whether we are looking at the Council of Europe, the United Nations Human Rights Committee—where Azerbaijan is due for its periodic review in 2013—or the reports that the European Commission draws up to examine progress by the six countries that are members of the EU’s eastern partnership, it is important to note that Azerbaijan’s human rights record, like other areas of its development, is rightly under international scrutiny the whole time.

The hon. Lady made a good point about the forthcoming presidential election. I very much hope that the Azerbaijani authorities will show, in actions as well as words, their clear commitment to a free and fair democratic election, and that they will welcome and facilitate the presence of international observers who will be able to ensure that international standards are met. When I visited Baku in 2010, I had a meeting with the redoubtable Dame Audrey Glover, who was heading one of the international observer teams for the parliamentary elections. It will be important to have international observers with the strength of character and independence of spirit of Dame Audrey who can report openly and boldly to the world community on what is happening during the presidential election.

Bob Stewart: I hope that those people who have fled Azerbaijan will be allowed to go back for the presidential election, perhaps to stand in some capacity in the election. I hope that Azerbaijan will encourage that at the forthcoming presidential election, because it certainly did not do so at the last one.

Mr Lidington: It is always welcome, and right, when citizens of a country who have been obliged to flee feel that they can return freely. As my hon. Friend knows, however, one of the tragic legacies of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is that people on the Azerbaijani and the Armenian sides of the conflict remain displaced decades later. That is why the United Kingdom strongly supports the continuing efforts of the Minsk group to bring about a resolution to that tragic human story. It is in the interests of both countries, and of the Caucasus region more generally, that we should achieve a settlement of the conflict and create political stability. That would attract greater investment and create more prosperity in the region and allow those people who were displaced by that bloody war to return to their homes.

Christopher Pincher: Does my right hon. Friend support the activities of the Azerbaijan forum for democracy, freedom and human rights in encouraging a free press in that country? Ironically, some people here do not support a free press in our own country. Indeed, some Members of this House would like to change the rules on defamation to make it more difficult to defame the dead.

Mr Lidington: In my conversations with Ministers, not only in Azerbaijan but throughout the eastern

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partnership, I certainly make clear the importance not only of electoral freedoms but of journalistic and broader media freedoms, so I can give my hon. Friend that assurance.

We share the disappointment of our European partners at the slow progress that is being made in Azerbaijan on implementing reforms that would improve the human rights situation there and bring the country closer to the international standards to which she has committed herself. In addition to our bilateral engagement with the Government of Azerbaijan, we work with local civil society organisations to identify areas in which we can make a positive difference. Our embassy in Baku and officials in London regularly engage with non-governmental organisations and human rights defenders, and we will continue to support a range of projects inside Azerbaijan through our embassy. So far, these have included projects to advance property rights, highlight gender issues, promote media freedom and support monitoring of the legal system. For example, officials from our embassy in Baku met independent media organisations to discuss media freedom in the city of Ganja last month.

The United Kingdom also continues to raise human rights with Azerbaijan multilaterally. We welcome the human rights action plan, which President Aliyev has approved. The test is going to be translating that action plan into concrete reality and everyday practice. It is important that those commitments start to produce significant results.

Earlier this month, the Government delegation at the Council of Europe raised a number of human rights issues with the Azerbaijani counterparts, including free and fair elections, press freedom and the need to tackle corruption. We are also reminding Azerbaijan in the light of its own upcoming presidency of the Council of Europe in 2014 of the need to fulfil its obligations, including in relation to strengthening institutions and increasing the accountability of public officials.

We support, too, the extensive work inside Azerbaijan of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, especially its work on media freedom and the rule of law. Last November, the OSCE office in Baku organised two workshops bringing together print and e-journalists and other media professionals, officials from regional police departments and the Ministry of Internal Affairs to promote further understanding and co-operation. Last month, the OSCE organised a training event on how to bring human rights cases effectively to the European Court of Human Rights.

The European Union, too, has an important role to play in Azerbaijan’s future. It has, after all, an excellent track record of assisting post-communist countries to achieve European democratic values and norms. Promoting democratic reforms, fundamental freedoms and human rights are key priorities in EU-Azerbaijan relations. We welcome the commitment President Aliyev made to political reform and democratic process in his recent meeting with EU Council President, Herman van Rompuy, and we encourage Azerbaijan to use the EU’s experience in democracy building. Azerbaijan’s membership of the eastern partnership provides her with an opportunity to get the kind of support and experience that will help her to carry through that democratic transition.

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Helen Goodman: I am grateful to the Minister for his full reply, but because I am not sure how far along he is with his remarks, I want to ask him whether he will commit the British Government to take up the individual cases I mentioned. I do not know whether he is going to come on that.

Mr Lidington: I was grateful to the hon. Lady for sending my office details earlier this week of the cases she intended to raise. So far, we do not have direct contact with all the individuals she mentioned, but we know that Human Rights Watch does have those individual cases under review—and we support the work that Human Rights Watch is already carrying out. In previous meetings, I have raised individual cases with Azeri Ministers—particularly the case of the blogger Eynulla Fatullayev, who was subsequently released and pardoned. I think that was due not only to my intervention but to a sustained international campaign. I shall certainly ask for further advice on the individual cases that the hon. Lady has raised, so that I can consider opportunities to take up those cases—if, I make this caveat, we judge that that is going to help to secure the outcome that both she and I wish to see, which is a just outcome and respect for human rights and media freedom.

We played an active role in Azerbaijan’s universal periodic review by the UN Human Rights Council published in 2009. We are not satisfied that Azerbaijan has yet made sufficient progress on some of the recommendations made. Key recommendations in that review included that Azerbaijan

“effectively investigate and prosecute crimes and violations against journalists and human rights defenders and see that those responsible are punished.”

The review conclusions also asked that

“complaints of harassment of journalists and human rights defenders receive prompt response and that adequate measures for their safety are taken.”

Azerbaijan is scheduled for another review in 2013, and we will not hesitate to press for progress on these points, dating back to the 2009 review, and other issues of concern, including those raised by the hon. Lady today.

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are cornerstones of a democratic society. We are therefore concerned about reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International highlighting the difficult environment in which journalists work and the detentions of leading journalists and activists. The UK has raised high-profile cases at official and ministerial level, including in the recent past, and we are certainly willing to do so again. In addition to raising the Fatullayev case, we have met, and have remained in contact with, the brother of Vidadi Iskenderov, a human rights defender and political activist currently serving three years in prison on charges of interfering with the 2010 parliamentary elections. Embassy staff have also visited Shahin Hasani, the leader of the opposition Popular Front party, who is in prison for possession of ammunition, a charge he refutes.

The Government of Azerbaijan have indicated a willingness to improve the situation for journalists, and we hope rapid action is taken. On her recent visit to Baku to attend the UN internet governance forum, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Ms Dunja Mijatovic, commented that she had witnessed

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“the political will of the Azerbaijani authorities to improve the current practices to ensure better compliance with OSCE media freedom commitments.”

OSCE representatives have worked with Azeri journalists to educate them on their rights. The UK has funded workshops to improve the situation for journalists and activists as well as to provide professional training, in order to help raise journalistic standards and encourage impartial and responsible reporting.

We have called on the authorities to allow freedom of association in Azerbaijan and are concerned that new laws are due to come into effect in January that will significantly increase the fines for unsanctioned protests. Azerbaijan should avoid obstructing citizens exercising their lawful right to protest. We call on protest organisers and the authorities to work together constructively to find a solution in line with European democratic norms. We will continue to monitor that situation closely.

On forced evictions and the compensation issue, our embassy is funding projects to increase public awareness of property rights and to promote international standards in order to prevent forced evictions. However, we must primarily look to the authorities in Azerbaijan to accept

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responsibility and play their part in securing a fair outcome. Property rights must be respected and where they are violated independent courts should uphold those rights. We also call on Azerbaijan to uphold the law and ensure freedom of religious practice. We urge the Azerbaijani authorities to adopt a form of non-military service for conscientious objectors to military service.

The UK is the largest single foreign investor in Azerbaijan. We are proud of our association with Azerbaijan and the work we are doing there to achieve mutual prosperity. Our position as a big investor also confers on us a responsibility to engage seriously on areas of policy where we and the Azerbaijanis may have differences, including human rights and the rule of law. We are well aware of that responsibility. I believe the Government have already shown that they are determined to have conversations, even difficult ones, on such issues with the Azerbaijani authorities, and we will continue to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

5.29 pm

House adjourned.