20/12/2012 11:55 GMT | Updated 19/02/2013 05:12 GMT

This Should Have Been the Year When Azerbaijan Stepped Forward and Opened Up

At the start of November I visited Azerbaijan for the first time. I was there to attend the UN Internet Governance Forum which was being held in Baku.

The internet is one of the freest means of communication - instrumental in facilitating recent political uprising during the Arab spring. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Azerbaijan.

At no time in its history can it be said Azerbaijan has been a liberal democracy. Between 1805 and 1991 it was part of either the Russian empire or the Soviet Union and in its more recent history it has prioritised economic development over human rights.

But this year should have been the year when Azerbaijan stepped forward and opened up. It held two major international events - the Eurovision Song Contest and the Internet Governance Forum - and many hoped the Azeri government would use this opportunity to turn over a new leaf.

Unfortunately the opposite seems to have happened with authorities clamping down even more aggressively on journalists and critics of the regime.

The reality of the life in an autocracy was brought home to me by the fact that Baku was plastered with huge posters of President Aliyev - whose father was also President. But the human rights issues in Azerbaijan are far more serious than that.

Just while I was there the Azeri government held the trial of journalist whose only alleged crime was criticising the regime and the authorities also hacked the computers of Neelie Kroes' - Vice President of the European Commission - staff while they were attending the Internet Governance Forum.

Unfortunately the human rights abuses in Azerbaijan do not stop there. In 2005 Elmar Huseynov - the Editor of the Monitor newspaper and a fierce critic of the President - was gunned down in Baku. Earlier this year Idrak Abbasov - an award winning journalist and human rights defender - was attacked by employees of the state oil company after he filmed them destroying residential properties near an oil field.

These are not isolated cases. It is believed there are now 70 political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Freedom of expression, assembly and association are limited, the state controls traditional media and mass protests have been violently suppressed and demonstrators imprisoned.

Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe and is a signatory of the European Convention of Human Rights. This means that when the Azeri government abuses human rights it is not simply breaching an individual's human rights but it is breaching international agreements.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) will shortly be discussing a draft resolution and report on political prisons in Azerbaijan. The Azeri government refused to cooperate with the compilation of this report and PACE's monitoring committee has said:

"The combination of the restrictive implementation of freedoms with unfair trials and the undue influence of the executive results in the systemic detention of people who may be considered prisoners of conscience."

Countries like the UK can play a lead role in reminding countries like Azerbaijan of their obligations to protect human rights. Both the British Government and Parliament helped apply pressure on the Azeri government to release Emin Milli - who was imprisoned after criticising the Azeri government for importing donkeys.

But the UK can and must do more. The Government should use diplomatic channels to strongly remind the Azeri government of their human rights obligations, they should support a strong resolution at PACE calling on the Azeri government to honour its commitment and they should support the report on political prisoners which will come before PACE next year.

To take action for Mehman Huseynov, a journalist and activist arrested for criticising the Azerbaijan government and one of the cases featured in this year's Amnesty 'Write for Rights' campaign, go to: