(New York) – The Azerbaijani authorities should thoroughly and impartially investigate the alleged beating by police of two young musicians detained during a March 17, 2012 protest in Baku and make certain there is no further ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should ensure that the young men and another activist detained with them can fully exercise their due process rights, including access to their lawyer, Human Rights Watch said.
The musicians are members of the popular band Bulistan, which was playing for participants at a peaceful demonstration when unidentified men, apparently in response to some particularly harsh language used by Jamal Ali, Bulistan’s lead singer, attacked the performers, setting off a brawl. Uniformed police quickly detained Ali; Natig Kamilov, the band’s bassist; and Etibar Salmanli, one of the protest organizers, who had apparently tried to intervene to break up some of the fights.
The band members’ lawyer told Human Rights Watch that Ali and Kamilov allege that they were beaten by police during their arrest and at the police station where they were initially held. Ali also told his lawyer he was again beaten by police two days later.
“No one should be beaten in police custody, even if they’ve sung or said something that the authorities or others don’t like the sound of,” said Jane Buchanan, acting deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “To compound the situation, the young men were whisked away to court without being able to consult with their lawyer.”
Such treatment violates the men’s rights under both Azerbaijani and international law, Human Rights Watch said. The alleged ill-treatment should be investigated immediately and any police officials found responsible for abuse should be punished, Human Rights Watch said.
The three men were initially held for about two hours at the Sabail district police station No. 8 and later sentenced to administrative detention on charges of petty hooliganism in perfunctory and effectively closed trials. Their lawyer, Anar Gasimli, told Human Rights Watch that he was allowed to attend the hearing, but because he was not allowed to consult with the men beforehand or study the case materials, he could not effectively act as their defense counsel.
At the hearing, Gasimli observed that Ali had numerous bruises on his face, multiple scratches on his forehead, bruises around his eyes, and a large bump on his nose. Observing Ali’s condition, the judge sent a letter to the Sabail district prosecutor’s office requesting an investigation into possible ill-treatment. Despite the judge’s order, Gasimli said, Ali has neither been questioned about his injuries nor been given a medical examination.
During an appeals hearing on March 21, Ali alleged that police beat him with rubber truncheons on his heels for about two hours on March 19, while serving his administrative detention in the Sabail district main police station. Gasimli filed a motion for another investigation into possible ill-treatment, but the judge denied the motion, saying the Sabail district prosecutor’s office should already be looking into the allegations of ill-treatment, based on the request at the first hearing.
During the initial March 17 hearing, Kamilov told Gasimli that as soon as he was taken to the police station, several police beat him so severely that he lost consciousness. He came to only after an ambulance was called and medical personnel revived him. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that police had dragged Kamilov by the hair while detaining him at the protest. Kamilov did not have visible bruises, though, and the court refused Gasimli’s motion requesting an investigation into whether Kamilov had been ill-treated.
Considering that forensic physical evidence of ill-treatment is time sensitive and that no medical examination has been conducted, the capacity for a conclusive and impartial investigation into allegations of ill-treatment could be severely compromised, Human Rights Watch said.
“This looks like a deliberate cover-up,” Buchanan said. “The authorities should immediately initiate an independent, thorough investigation into the police actions, and it should be supervised at the highest levels.”
Gasimli told Human Rights Watch that although he arrived at the police station where the men were held a half an hour after they were detained, he was not allowed to see his clients. The duty officer would say only that he was following the orders from his superiors. Gasimli called an Interior Ministry hotline about the violation, but no immediate action was taken.
He said he saw his clients only in the Sabail district court, to which they were transferred around 9 p.m., but was not allowed to speak to them in private. The judge declined Gasimli’s other motions, including to allow him time to study the case materials and to include video materials from the protest scene as evidence.
The men were tried separately in perfunctory administrative hearings on March 17, each lasting only 10 to 15 minutes. Administrative hearings are typically open to the public, but the judge denied Gasimli’s motion to allow family, friends, and journalists into the courtroom with no explanation. The court sentenced Salmanli to five days of detention, Kamilov to six days, and Ali to 10 days. Instead of transferring them to the special detention facility where administrative offenders usually serve their sentences, for unclear reasons, police have held the young men in the Sabail district main police station, and have denied them access to their families and lawyer.
The Appeals Court hearings for the men on March 21, at which the sentences were upheld, were open to the public. Although the judge granted Gasimli’s request to meet with Ali, they were not allowed to confer privately.
“When Ali’s hearing started I explained to the judge that I hadn’t had an opportunity to talk to my client in private and decide on a defense strategy,” he said. “The judge gave me 10 minutes to do so, but the police who accompanied Ali in refused to let us speak alone. And I refused to discuss anything with him in their presence.” The judge refused to intervene.
Gasimli also made a motion to transfer his clients to the regular site for administrative detention, but the judge did not rule on his motion, and the men were transferred back to the Sabail main police station.
“Given these numerous procedural violations, it’s clear that the court railroaded this case through without giving these young men any chance of a fair trial,” Buchanan said. “Sending them back to the police station where they say they were beaten, instead of to the administrative detention facility was inexcusable.”
About 1,000 people attended the March 17 demonstration organized by a coalition of youth organizations. Following a series of speeches, Bulistan began to play. Some particularly vulgar and critical lyrics and statements by Ali angered one person in the crowd, and as a verbal confrontation between them escalated, unknown men rushed the stage, attacking the performers and causing a brawl. Until then, the protest had been entirely peaceful.
Bulistan is known for its political protest songs and its satirical, ironic videos. Bulistan members had actively promoted and participated in opposition demonstrations in the past, including on March 11, 2011, when police violently dispersed an unsanctioned peaceful protest in downtown Baku and detained protesters, many of whom were sentenced to prison terms.
Police also dispersed a peaceful demonstration earlier this month, on March 6, allegedly beating four youth activists and detaining them along with 12 other demonstrators and a journalist. Among those beaten and detained was a 21-year-old opposition activist, Jabbar Savalanli, who was released from prison in December 2011 under an amnesty. He had been arrested in February 2011, days after using Facebook to criticize the government and call for public protests. He was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison on bogus drug charges.
“Just two months before thousands of visitors arrive in Baku for the Eurovision Song Contest, Azerbaijani police are detaining and beating musicians who criticize the government,” Buchanan said. “These blatant abuses can cast a real shadow over the widely popular event and Azerbaijan’s efforts to showcase itself to the world.”