Having declared independence from the USSR in 1991, Azerbaijan held its first parliamentary election on November 12, 1995.

 The government of Azerbaijan is based on the separation of powers among the legislative, executive and judicial branches. Executive power is held by the President and the Prime Minister of Azerbaijan, while legislative power is vested in the government and parliament. The President is the head of state and commander-in chief; the Prime Minister is the head of government. Judicial power is vested in the Constitutional Court, Supreme Court and the Economic Court, whose judges are nominated by the President.


Ilham Heydar oglu Aliyev is the fourth president of Azerbaijan, and has been in office since 2003. He succeeded his father, Heydar Aliyev, an ex KGB officer who ruled Azerbaijan for 10 years. Ilham Aliyev won his third term in office in October 2012 following a 2009 amendment to the Constitution of Azerbaijan which abolished the former limit of two consecutive presidential terms. The election was marred by irregularities and claims of voter fraud.  

Elections in Azerbaijan have been tarnished repeatedly by voter intimidation, widespread violence, including violent police crackdowns on opposition movements, and blatant media bias, falling short of meeting international standards as observed by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Although Azerbaijan has held several elections since regaining its independence, and has many of the formal institutions of democracy, it is still widely regarded as an authoritarian state. To this day, large numbers of Azerbaijani journalists, bloggers, lawyers, and human rights activists are rounded up and jailed for their criticism of President Aliyev and government authorities.

Azerbaijan has been harshly criticized for bribing foreign officials and diplomats to promote its causes abroad and legitimize its elections at home, a practice that has been referred to as ‘caviar diplomacy.’ Aliyev’s dictatorship and its subservient court system have repeatedly fabricated charges to persecute and punish those who dare to expose his kleptocratic regime.







Freedom of Assembly was only officially introduced in Azerbaijan in June 2005 following increasing national pressure.

However, events since that day have proved this to only be a nominal change.  Opposition supporters have been denied the right to demonstrate, and individuals attending unsanctioned rallies are regularly beaten and detained by the police.

Rustemzadeh is a human rights activist and member of two civic movements for democratic reform, the Free Youth Organization and NIDA. In 2013, he was arrested and arbitrarily held in pretrial detention for over six months for allegedly filming and posting a humorous interpretation of the well-known “Harlem Shake” dance online, which he has vehemently denied. On May 6, 2014, after more than a year in jail, the Baku Grave Crimes Court sentenced Rustemzadeh to eight years in prison for “hooliganism” and “preparation of mass disorder” for his alleged involvement in the video and for creating a Facebook event publicizing a 2013 demonstration in Baku. The Supreme Court upheld Rustemzadeh’s sentence on October 15, 2014.

During the verdict, the Baku Grave Crimes Court also sentenced seven other members of the NIDA movement on similar charges, with prison terms ranging from six to eight years. While four of them were released following a presidential pardon in late 2014, the remaining NIDA members, including Rustemzadeh, remain behind bars.



HRF and Azerbaijan


Human Rights Foundation, in partnership with John Templeton Foundation and Universidad Francisco Marroquin, provides a resource that outlines access to free speech and details relevant cases.

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Malahat Nasibova is an Azeri journalist and 2011 Oslo Freedom Forum speaker.

She reports on abuse of power, human rights violations, war crimes, and corruption in the contested Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. Nasibova is a correspondent for Turan, an independent information agency, and for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). In 2002, Nasibova established the first independent NGO in Nakhchivan, the Democracy and NGO Development Resource Center (DNDRC). Nasibova has faced arrest, assault, harassment, and death threats in retaliation for her work. In 2009, she was awarded the Rafto Prize for her courageous journalism. In 2014, her husband Ilgar Nasibova, also a journalist, was nearly killed when he was beaten unconscious at the DNDRC offices in what was widely seen as an attempt to silence his reporting on a controversial prisoner fatality. Nasibova makes public appearances as a civil society rights activist as well as a Rafto laureate.