cms-image-000003963On December 28, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev signed his annual list of pardoned prisoners. Despite the hopes of many in Azerbaijan and abroad, none of the country’s 95 political prisoners were on the list. Human rights activists are at odds as to the reasons for Aliyev’s continued crackdown on journalists and political dissidents.

On the same day, prominent journalist Rauf Mirgadirov was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for espionage. Some blame the recently US Azerbaijani Democracy Act recently passed in the US, but others are saying that Aliyev planned to crack down from the very beginning.

On December 25, Mirgadirov’s mother was handing out candy to people at his trial, because she, like many others whose family members remain in Azerbaijani prisons on trumped up charges, was hoping that her son would be released on Monday as part of the pardoning. She joined others in hoping for a New Years miracle that never came.

Instead, her son was sentenced jail for espionage, a charge that human rights defenders have decried as false.

“When will I see my son free, will this ever happen?” she cried as she walked out of the courtroom.

More than 90 other families of political prisoners are now left wondering the same thing. For many years, Aliyev has signed a New Year decree pardoning prisoners, including at least a few political prisoners. But this time, there was no such luck.

“None of ours were let go. Thanks, Congressman Smith,” Matanat Azizova, a women’s rights activist, lamented.

On December 15, US Congressman Christopher Smith introduced the Azerbaijan Democracy Act, which called for visa sanctions on human rights violators and corrupted officials in Azerbaijan. A week later, the Global Magnitski Act was also introduced.

“Many in Azerbaijan are now saying that these two pieces of legislation angered Azerbaijani officials. Yes, they did, and this is why the so-called counter-sanctions were introduced by Azerbaijani parliamentarians against the US. But this doesn’t mean that Ilham Aliyev would have pardoned any of those people if there was no outside pressure on him. In fact, he and his officials should be pressured as grave human rights violators,” says youth activist Kamil Yunusov.

He adds that the so-called “quiet diplomacy” is a good thing, but it should not be the only method for dealing with Azerbaijani officials. He argues that initiatives like the Azerbaijan Democracy Act should be welcomed wholeheartedly.

Head of the National Council Jamil Hasanli says that “advocacy for human rights implementation in Azerbaijan is not a crime, and therefore shouldn’t be hidden.”