Despite the release of many prisoners earlier this year, Azerbaijan has renewed "its vicious crackdown on critics and independent groups," according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
“With the release of some wrongfully imprisoned activists earlier this year, there were high hopes that Azerbaijan was turning a corner,” said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “But optimism is fading fast as the government relentlessly pursues critics and tries to shut down independent groups.”
The report, which was released Thursday and features information from more than 90 interviews, documents arrests of political activists, journalists, and others under what the international rights group calls false, politically motivated criminal and administrative charges.
"Swearing in public" and "hooliganism" were some of the questionable misdemeanor charges cited in the report as used to detain political activists, including peaceful demonstrators.
Critics of the government were more vocal in 2016 as Azerbaijan's petroleum export-dependent economy suffered from the severe drop in global oil prices in 2015.
In addition to arresting at least 20 political and youth activists in 2016 on "spurious charges," the Azeri government has severely limited the ability of independent groups to function, leaving many of the activists freed earlier this year constrained.
"So, yes, we are free, but what can we do," the report quoted Anar Mammadli, director of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center, who was sentenced in 2015 and released this March. "The only space for us now is on social media... or else, leave the country."