December 11, 2019 / 9:42 AM / in 8 months

European rights body urges Azerbaijan to respect freedom of expression

FILE PHOTO: Dunja Mijatovic, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, holds a news conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia, December 6, 2019. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/File Photo

BAKU (Reuters) - Azerbaijan needs to respect freedom of expression, improve access to lawyers and uphold the rights of internally displaced persons, the top European rights watchdog said on Wednesday.

Western nations have courted Azerbaijan because of its role as an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas to Europe. But various European bodies and rights groups have accused President Ilham Aliyev of muzzling dissent and jailing opponents. Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic, denies this.

Dunja Mijatović, human rights commissioner at the 47-nation Council of Europe, called on Azeri authorities to free journalists and social media activists who had been jailed on she said were a variety of charges that defied credibility.

She said that another problem was an acute shortage of lawyers, particularly in regions outside the capital Baku, which prevented many people from getting access to legal assistance.

“The authorities should adopt a law on legal aid in line with Council of Europe standards and ensure that all persons effectively enjoy the right to legal assistance,” said Mijatovic, who visited Azerbaijan in July.

Azeri authorities rejected the Council’s criticism, saying it contained a number of inaccuracies that failed to reflect the “genuine situation of human rights in Azerbaijan”.

The Council of Europe, founded in 1949 and based in Strasbourg, France, is a separate body from the European Union and so only advise member states on policy but not pass laws.

Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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