(New York) – Azerbaijani courts sentenced a human rights defender to three years in prison following a flawed trial on dubious charges of interference with parliamentary elections, Human Rights Watch said today. Separately, six other opposition activists were sentenced to terms of up to three years following unfair trials over their role in anti-government protests.

The Azerbaijani authorities should end its crackdown on critics of the government and release the imprisoned activists, Human Rights Watch said.

“These trumped-up charges and flawed trials show how this government operates to silence critical voices,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This is not the way any state – far less a Council of Europe member – should respond to grievances of its own people.”

On August 27, 2011, Goychay District Court sentenced Vidadi Isganderov, a human rights defender, to three years in prison. He was found guilty of interfering with the November 2010 parliamentary election under three articles of the criminal code:  159.3 (forcing somebody to vote against their will), 160.1 (interference with the activities of the electoral commissions), and 132 (battery).

Isganderov was a candidate in the elections for the Agdash-Goychay electoral district. Following the elections he submitted a complaint to the police and prosecutor’s office alleging vote rigging in his district. He provided materials, including video footage, in support of his allegations, but the authorities failed to investigate them. Instead, they brought charges against him.

Isganderov’s conviction followed a decision on August 26 in Baku’s Sabail District Court to sentence six political activists to terms ranging from 18 months to 3 years for participating in unauthorized protests in April. Arif Alisli, Elnur Israfilov, Elsan Hasanov, Sahib Karimov, Zulfugar Eyvazli, and Babek Hasanov were arrested on April 2 and charged under Criminal Code articles 233 (organizing actions promoting breach of social order or active participation in such actions), 315 (resisting a representative of the authority or using violence against them), and 186.1 (deliberate damage or destruction of property).

Isganderov’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that during the trial he was not able to effectively present a defense and that Isganderov was convicted despite the absence of evidence to substantiate the charges and much conflicted evidence. For example, Isganderov was accused of intervening with electoral commission members in three polling stations alleging that they had falsified ballots. ‪However, Isganderov had not visited two of these precincts. Isganderov’s lawyer requested that footage from the precincts be made available. Although the judge granted the request, he rendered his judgment without having the footage.

Isganderov was also accused of forcing people to vote against their will. But five witnesses whom the prosecution called, alleging that they did not vote because they were scared off when Isganderov challenged precinct commission members, denied that account and said that they had never seen Isganderov before.

Isganderov’s trial and conviction clearly violates many of the fundamental rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights to which Azerbaijan is a party, Human Rights Watch said. The Azerbaijani authorities have a responsibility to remedy his wrongful conviction.

Isganderov, a lawyer by training, is the head of Support for Protection of Democracy, a nongovernmental group that carries out a wide range of human rights work. He defended the rights of homeowners who had lost large sums of money to bogus construction companies and also those who had been victims of alleged police extortion. Interior Ministry officials have in recent years brought several defamation charges against him, but none resulted in convictions.

Isganderov was arrested twice in April for participating in unsanctioned opposition rallies and convicted of misdemeanor charges of disobeying police orders. He served short sentences for both. But when his second sentence was about to expire, instead of releasing Isganderov, the authorities brought criminal charges of electoral interference against him.

“The timing and nature of the charges against Isganderov have all the markings of being fabricated and merely intended to punish him for his activism,” Williamson said. “The authorities should drop their case against him and release him immediately.”

Isganderov’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that he will appeal the conviction. Human Rights Watch called on the prosecuting authorities at the appeals stage to tell the court that they are withdrawing the case against Isganderov and want to have his conviction quashed.

Rallies in March and April in Baku, in the wake of the mass protests in the Middle East, targeted alleged government corruption and called for the Azerbaijani leadership to resign. The authorities responded with wide-scale arrests of political and social media activists. Azerbaijani courts convicted dozens of activists to between 5 and 15 days in prison in trials that were closed to the public.

In the case of the six other activists, although they were represented by their lawyers at trial, they were given little opportunity to present a defense. The judge refused multiple motions by the defense to question prosecution witnesses. The prosecution largely relied on the written statements by law enforcement officers to convict the men, but many of the officers did not testify at trial and the defense request to have them brought for cross examination was refused. Defense requests to question other officials from Baku's executive authorities about evidence they submitted were also denied.
 

In effect the six activists were convicted on the basis of evidence that they were not allowed to challenge, Human Rights Watch said. They were held criminally responsible for committing damage on the basis of having attended the rally even though photographic evidence clearly established that they had not caused any of the damage.

The prosecution of the six activists for their participation in the rallies and the failure to ensure them a fair trial are blatant violations of the European Convention on Human Rights. Even if the Azerbaijani government alleges that criminal or punishable acts may have taken place during a protest, the European Court of Human Rights has made clear that a participant in a demonstration does not cease to enjoy the right to peaceful assembly as a result of sporadic violence or other punishable acts committed by others in the course of the demonstration, if the participant in question remains peaceful. The prosecution should also withdraw the case against the men at the appeals stage and ask the court to quash the convictions.

“The arrests and convictions of activists in political trials flout Azerbaijan’s international obligations,” Williamson said. “The authorities should immediately withdraw the cases that they have brought against people who supported the protests and allow greater freedom of expression and assembly.”