A prominent human rights group urged the government of Azerbaijan on Friday to investigate the illegal demolition of a building that housed three leading local advocacy groups.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the destruction of the building that served as a hub for human rights activists in the country sent a chilling message to Azerbaijanis.
"These human rights organizations, which provided crucial support to victims of government abuse, as well as women in crisis and others in need, have lost nearly everything," HRW researcher Jane Buchanan said in a statement.
The group said Thursday's demolition took place without warning and despite a court injunction banning expropriation or demolition of the property, which the owners of the building, rights defender Leyla Yunus and her husband, obtained in May pending a final court decision.
Officials at the mayor's office could not immediately be reached for comment.
The U.S. Embassy in Baku also expressed concern about the building's demolition and urged the Azerbaijani authorities to assure that laws on property rights are respected. In a statement issued Friday, it underscored "the central role of respect for property rights and rule of law as foundations of a free and prosperous society."
The energy-rich nation has faced persistent criticism from international rights groups for its heavy-handed treatment of independent media, opposition parties and rights activists.
Protection of property rights also has been weak in Azerbaijan amid a government-led drive to remodel the capital.
Azad Isazade, who works at the Institute for Peace and Democracy, one of the groups formerly housed in the building torn down Thursday, said that officials arrived without advance warning in the evening and told people to leave the premises for their safety as an adjacent building was to be demolished.
Isazade told The Associated Press the activists weren't given any time to evacuate their belongings until the building next door was half destroyed and its debris had buried some of their possessions.
He said authorities offered no compensation.
"This nighttime demolition, without warning or allowing the tenants to remove personal property, suggests that the authorities were looking to punish Yunus for her work defending people's property," Buchanan said. "It is particularly outrageous that the government would bring in the bulldozers in defiance of a court order and the rule of law."