Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Azerbaijan government has remained under the rule of the Aliyev family, an increasingly kleptocratic reign currently headed by President Ilham Aliyev. Elections in Azerbaijan have been plagued with fraud, concentrating power into the hands of Aliyev’s autocratic regime and repressing any political opposition. As a result, Azerbaijani civilians have faced violent and hostile threats to academic freedom and human rights.
Higher education has become one of the primary sites of conflict and contestation. Students and scholars are coerced to support and praise government decisions or else risk suspension or dismissal from their positions if accused of participating in opposition activity. The crackdowns have also severely impacted the scholastic integrity of these scholars given that students and researchers in Azerbaijan are not allowed to cite those who have criticized the government. Furthermore, scholars are coerced into expressing positive views about the government, including writing opinion pieces that portray the government in a positive light. Scholars expressing dissident views on social media have been threatened with the loss of their academic position. In one instance in 2016, fifty professors were fired from Caucasus University for their connections to Turkish exile Fetullah Gülen. There was also an uptick in the number of state-perpetrated cyberattacks in 2021 and 2022 against anyone expressing critical views of the regime. Azerbaijani activists, journalists, scholars, and opposition members have had their social media accounts and computers hacked, including via the use of Pegasus spyware, a surveillance software, leading to both self- and government-censorship.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has also strengthened its control over the opposition to pandemic-related policies, specifically taking measures against academic and student protestors through forceful imprisonment. At the start of the pandemic, in June 2020, the police arrested six students protesting the continuation of exams despite the ongoing pandemic and the unequal access to higher education at the height of COVID-19 restrictions. In February 2021, a group of student protesters were detained for criticizing the school’s grading policy at Lankaran State University (LSU). Then again on May 3, 2021, a similar incident took place in which police detained five students peacefully protesting a decision by Azerbaijan State Economic University (ASEU) to revoke a policy that aided students taking exams during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Azerbaijan’s low state expenditure on higher education has served as an additional obstacle to the autonomy of universities, resulting in low pay, high levels of corruption, and nepotism. Low salaries incline instructors to accept bribes to cover their costs in exchange for high grades. Instructors will also take bribes to cover additional class material for individual students which places inequitable financial burdens on low-income families. Another remnant of Soviet-era rule is the presence of national security officers at state universities, adding to the pressure for self-censorship.
Additionally, the hostilities between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces have had a major impact on all levels of education. The Education Minister reported that the education of 300,000 students’ was interrupted during 2020’s sporadic military clashes, which escalated to a large-scale war that continued for six weeks, killing thousands and indiscriminately damaging over 130 schools and pre-schools. Both forces also used universities as grounds of operation, and in some cases, the occupation of schools continued after the ceasefire.
Endangered Scholars Worldwide is deeply concerned with the arbitrary detention of Azerbaijani students for peacefully exercising the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Azerbaijan is a party. ESW demands that the Azerbaijan government reinstate the autonomy of higher education institutions and scientific research, to stop the persecution of scholars and students for expressing their views, and to immediately release the currently detained students and scholars. ESW also calls for increased funding for the education system, removal of national security officers from public universities, and the cessation of threats to the job security and integrity of scholars’ careers.
(Last updated: January 5, 2023)
Please send appeals to:
Michelle Bachelet Jeria
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Palais des Nations
CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland
Permanent Representative of Azerbaijan to the United Nations
Office of the Permanent Representative
633 Third Avenue, Suite 3210
New York, NY, 10017
Tel: +1 (212) 371-2559, +1 (212) 371-2832