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The Azerbaijani government must ensure a fair trial for three opposition youth leaders whose trial begins today in Baku, Human Rights Watch said today.

Ruslan Bashirli, head of the Yeni Fikir (New Thinking) youth group, is charged with attempting to forcefully overthrow the government and of engaging in illegal business activities. Yeni Fikir deputy heads Said Nuri and Ramin Tagiev face identical charges.

“The context and timing of the arrest of the Yeni Fikir leaders suggests that the case is politically motivated,” said Holly Cartner, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “It also casts an even darker shadow on the 2005 parliamentary elections, which were blatantly fraudulent.”

Azerbaijani authorities arrested the three Yeni Fikir leaders in August and September 2005, in the run-up to the November parliamentary elections. Yeni Fikir is closely aligned to the opposition Popular Front Party. Prior to the elections, authorities arrested dozens of other individuals, including many former government officials and prominent business leaders, who are alleged to have ties to opposition parties. These individuals similarly face charges of attempting to overthrow the government and committing other crimes against the state.

On August 6, law enforcement officers in camouflage uniforms and black masks arrested Ruslan Bashirli. The next day the Prosecutor General’s Office charged Bashirli with attempting to forcefully overthrow the government and accused him of meeting with Armenian security service officers in Georgia in July and accepting U.S.$2,000 from them. Bashirli was then questioned for two days in the presence of a state-appointed lawyer instead of the lawyer he had explicitly chosen at the time as defense counsel. Bashirli informed his own lawyer that during this questioning, law enforcement officers pressured Bashirli to give evidence against Ali Keremli, leader of the Popular Front Party, suggesting that if he made a statement on television implicating Keremli, he would be released within 24 hours. Bashirli refused to make such a statement.

Human Rights Watch has spoken with Bashirli’s lawyer, who states that Bashirli maintains that the meeting in Georgia indeed took place, but he believed that his counterparts were members of civil society organizations and that the funds were intended to support democratization activities.

On September 12, police arrested Said Nuri and charged him also with attempting to violently overthrow the government. The authorities accused him of organizing weapons and equipment for a coup in Azerbaijan while he was in Poland in late July and early August. Nuri was in Poland during this period for a conference. On September 14, police arrested Ramin Tagiev on the same charge and accused him of “molding opinion about the falsity of elections among the population.”

Since these arrests, prosecutors have also charged the three men with illegal business activity.

For days after Bashirli’s arrest, state-controlled Azerbaijani television showed video footage of him drinking at a table with two men who the government alleges are Armenian agents, and another member of Yeni Fikir, Osman Alimuradov. The prosecuting authorities claimed that the men alleged to be Armenian agents filmed the meeting and then gave the video cassette to Alimuradov, threatening to use it against the Yeni Fikir members should they change their minds about cooperation.

The government further alleges that it was Alimuradov who began to have second thoughts and decided to inform the Azerbaijani authorities about Bashirli and handed over the tape as evidence. It is not clear how the television station received copies of the video tape.

Posters showing still photographs from this video, alongside graphic photographs allegedly depicting bodies of Azerbaijanis killed and mutilated by Armenian forces during the Nagorno-Karabakh war, implicating Bashirli in collusion with Armenian security agents, were displayed in public places widely throughout Baku. It is not clear who created or distributed these posters.

“Azerbaijan’s government is known for pressing charges against opposition figures for what appear to be political reasons, and the Yeni Fikir case fits this pattern,” said Cartner. “We are deeply concerned that the three men will not get a fair trial.”

Azerbaijan has a history of arresting opposition figures during election periods and convicting them without guaranteeing basic fair trial standards. In October 2004, following fraudulent presidential elections and post-election violence, seven opposition leaders were convicted on charges of organizing or participating in mass disturbances and resisting or committing violence against a state representative. Human Rights Watch documented torture in the pre-trial detention of four of the seven defendants. Prosecution witnesses in this case also told the court that police and prosecutors had coerced and tortured them to make statements incriminating the opposition leaders. It is widely considered that the convicted opposition leaders were political prisoners.

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