Last Updated 7 August 2020

The Republic of Azerbaijan is a contiguous transcontinental presidential republic in the Caucasus region, situated at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. Azerbaijan is a member state of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The vast majority (around 96%) of the population of Azerbaijan identifies as Muslim.  Although Azerbaijan is secular according to its constitution, Islam is an integral part of its cultural and social identity.

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Constitution and government

Azerbaijan’s Constitution1 establishes the separation of state and religion, guarantees the equality of all religions, and recognises the right of individuals to freedom of religious beliefs. Azerbaijan prides itself on its cultural tolerance and its active role in promoting the importance of interfaith cooperation and dialogue. It is constitutionally secular and in fact calls itself a “humanist” state, but this is a self-assigned and misleading label. Azerbaijan in fact contravenes core humanist values; it restricts democracy, infringes on freedoms and violates human rights. In practice the authoritarian regime of Heydar Aliyev restricts freedom of religion or belief, and severely violates freedom of expression, and restricts the advocacy and promotion of any conception of humanist values, however broadly construed.

Under the constitution, persons do have the right to choose and change religious affiliation and beliefs, including atheism, to join or establish the religious group of their choice, and to engage in religious practice. The law on religious freedom expressly prohibits the government from interfering in the religious activities of any individual or group; however, there are significant exceptions. In practice, only a few religions are allowed to operate, and they are subject to significant government oversight and control.

The Azerbaijani regime favours authoritarianism and considers democracy a threat to its hold on power. Secularist critics of the government not only face the threat of government repression, but also the threat of Islamist violence. The years 2013-2014 in particular were marked by a brutal crackdown on secular groups, such as NGOs and human rights defenders (see “Highlighted cases” below.)

Religious organizations are required to register with the state in order to legally exist and exercise their freedom of religion or belief. There are reports of the government denying or delaying registration to minority religious groups it considers “nontraditional,” and conducting raids on communities ‘illegally’ practising their religion without permission of the state.

Education and children’s rights

While there is currently no religious curriculum at elementary and high schools, a government minister recently announced that from September 2020 a class dedicated to teaching Islam and other religions would be introduced in school and university curricula. The new course is framed at teaching “multiculturalism” an apparent attempt to fight radicalism in the country.2


Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

While the constitution guarantees freedom of the press, the authorities severely restrict the media in practice. There are few media outlets not controlled by the government. The few independent media outlets are subject to government harassment or are sent to prison on fabricated charges. In June 2020, Azerbaijani authorities imprisoned a reporter from the only remaining opposition paper (Azadlig) Tezehan Miralamli on charges of “hooliganism”.3

The government has repeatedly blocked some websites that feature opposition views. Authorities monitor internet use and punish critical bloggers.

The government has reportedly used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to impose further restrictions on freedom of expression. During this time, it accelerated arrests and imprisonments and sent dozens of activists and critics to prison on spurious charges, including for breaking lockdown rules or disobeying police orders.4

Freedom of Assembly

The government restricts freedom of assembly, especially for opposition parties. The authorities routinely deny permission for public protests, and violently disperse those protests that do take place.

In October 2019, an opposition rally in Baku was violently dispersed by police, with hundreds of peaceful protesters suffering from beatings and arrests. The head of the Popular Front Party, Ali Karimli, was violently detained by police, and Tofiq Yaqublu, a member of the Musavat party, was allegedly tortured in custody after he was detained at the protest.

Highlighted cases

In August 2015, prominent secular human rights activist Leyla Yunus was sentenced to eight and half years in prison, and her husband Arif Yunus was sentenced to seven years in prison, on charges of fraud and tax evasion in a politically-motivated show trial. Both were active in the movement advocating for a peaceful solution to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, amongst other issues. An international campaign eventually resulted in them being released on health grounds and receiving a suspended sentence in December 2016.5

A likely opposition candidate of the 2013 Presidential elections, Ilgar Mammadov, was sentenced to 7 years in jail in March 2014 on trumped up charges of ‘inciting violent protest’. As leader of the opposition Republican Alternative (REAL) movement, Mammadov campaigned for ideals such as rule of law, anti-corruption, a free-market economy and secularism. In May 2014, the European Court of Human Rights found that the Azerbaijani authorities had violated a number of basic human rights provisions in arresting and sentencing Mammadov. However, Mammadov had to wait until April 2020 for the Azerbaijani Supreme Court to comply with the ECHR judgment and acquit him of all charges.6



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