The chilling effect of torture
Today marks 31 years since the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) came into effect. CAT has since been ratified by 162 countries, but the use of torture is still widespread. In 2017 alone we worked on 13 cases relating to physical or psychological torture of journalists in five countries: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Colombia, The Gambia and Russia. The UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, held on 26 June every year, marks the anniversary of CAT, and highlights that torture continues to be used in many countries across the world. We spoke to the award winning human rights lawyer and former head of the Media Rights Institute, Rashid Hajili, about the use of torture against journalists in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan ratified CAT in 1996 but the country continues to use torture as a method of oppression. It has refused CAT inspectors access to detention facilities such as prison and mental health institutions. The government has become increasingly hostile to independent media, resulting in journalists being tortured because of the work they are doing. The UN has criticised Azerbaijan for torturing human rights defenders. Reporters Without Borders ranks the country at just 163 out of 180 on its Press Freedom Index.
“Torture is a political tool to make people too afraid to do anything,” Hajili explains. The few journalists still covering topics such as government corruption face torture as well as threats, kidnapping, imprisonment without trial, and fabricated charges. Hajili, who has represented Azerbaijani journalists before both domestic and international courts notes that “often the same journalists will have experienced more than one instance of torture”.
People posting content on social media or independent blogs face the same threats as journalists working through more traditional mediums. “Any journalist who is critical of the government – they are always under threat,” says Hajili.
As well as torture, journalists face other threats such as arbitrary arrest with spurious charges being brought against them. “They face charges of hooliganism, tax evasion and drug charges.” Hajili explained.
In one case Hajili represented a journalist whose articles exposed corruption among governmental ministries and by members of the presidential family. The journalist was arrested and detained without trial for participating in a rally. While in detention, security staff beat him in a sustained attack for a period of 2-3 hours. During the attack he was told to stop reporting or face harsher treatment. Despite the journalist reporting the physical violence, no legal proceedings were initiated. The investigation into the incident was inadequate – no inmates were interviewed and prison guards simply denied any misconduct.
The authorities within Azerbaijan continue to act with impunity. This extends to a refusal in investigating incidents of torture as well as simply denying the existence of torture in the country. In circumstances where Azerbaijan has been found in breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights it has paid compensation as directed but maintained that no torture took place.
This has an extreme chilling effect for both journalists and lawyers. Journalists are scared to report on topics which may put their safety or lives at risk, and those that continue have difficulty accessing legal representation as lawyers face the same threats from the government.
The situation has worsened in recent years. Increasingly victims face libel charges for saying they have been tortured, and their lawyers face libel or disbarment. Hajili says during the last year six lawyers working on political cases were disbarred, and many more lawyers stopped working on these types of cases out of fear. “So now even the lawyers that will take the cases don’t want to talk about torture – soon there will be no one left to talk about it,” he explains.
To Hajili’s knowledge there are only a handful of lawyers left in Azerbaijan still willing to represent journalists facing criminal prosecution.
Hajili is now based in Strasbourg after a criminal prosecution was brought against him and the acclaimed Media Rights Institute. He fled the country after his bank accounts were frozen and some of his colleagues were jailed. Although he can continue to represent his clients before the European Court of Human Rights he is unable to take on new cases in Azerbaijan.
“In Azerbaijan there is no independent media now” says Hajili. “There are some things online but there is no functioning media that can criticise the government.” Reporting about corruption and human rights abuses in Azerbaijan is now being done by journalists based outside Azerbaijan in circumstances where they have been forced to flee the country.
Hajili explains that without lawyers to challenge impunity the state is emboldened to use torture. “With no lawyers, or very few lawyers, left taking these cases – there’s more risk of torture. Police are more inclined to torture people now.”
The importance of a free and independent media is so fundamental that some journalists persist despite the serious dangers. Hajili explains that the severity of the situation can sometimes spur journalists on: “The situation is very bad for many people”. However, he states that there will always be brave people who will continue despite the very real threat and risk of prosecution against them.