(Berlin) – Azerbaijani authorities should ensure that everyone detained in connection with riots and protests in the city of Ismayilli has access to a lawyer and that no one is ill-treated in custody. The authorities should free everyone detained in Baku, the capital, who did no more than peacefully protest events in Ismayilli, and ensure independent monitors enjoy unimpeded access to Ismayilli.
Violence erupted in Ismayilli, a regional center about 200 kilometers northwest of Baku, on January 23, 2013. A seemingly minor car accident led to riots and mass protests calling for the local governor’s resignation. Numerous news media reports described several waves of clashes between law enforcement and protesters. Police used teargas and rubber bullets to quash the riots and restore order. In the aftermath, dozens of people were arrested in Ismayilli, though authorities say that as of January 30 only 12 remain in custody, facing criminal charges of looting and organizing riots. Many others have been fined and released.
“The Azerbaijani authorities have a terrible record of ill-treating detainees,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to make sure that no one held in relation to the riots and protests in Ismayilli is ill-treated. A key safeguard against that happening is to immediately allow detainees confidential meetings with their lawyers.”
Although information is difficult to verify as residents are afraid of speaking out, Human Rights Watch spoke with three lawyers who reported several incidents of due process violations and one case in which a detainee was beaten in custody.
On January 26 in Baku, a large number of uniformed and plainclothes police rounded up dozens of people who tried to hold a peaceful, but unsanctioned, rally in the city center to express solidarity with people in Ismayilli.
On January 29 in Ismayilli, police stopped a group of 20 human rights defenders monitoring events there. A member of the group said police took five of them to the police station for questioning, and then released them, with instructions for the group to leave Ismayilli because their presence risked “raising tensions.” The group remained in Ismayilli.
The government should allow human rights monitors and journalists unimpeded access to Ismayilli to document the events that began on January 23, as well as assess the treatment of detainees, and whether the police have engaged in excessive force to quell the riots, Human Rights Watch said.
The crackdown, and the arrests in Baku, came less than a week after the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly adopted a report highly critical of the Azerbaijani government’s human rights record. The assembly said in a resolution that Azerbaijan’s authorities should take concrete steps to ensure independence of the judiciary, hold law enforcement officials accountable for torture and ill-treatment, decriminalize libel, and ensure freedom of expression and assembly.
The unrest in Ismayilli started during the night of January 23, when a hotel owner who media reports said is related to the local governor drove his car into an electricity pole and started to fight with a taxi driver parked nearby. Based on numerous media reports, dozens of other people joined the brawl to support the taxi driver, and an angry mob torched the hotel and two cars parked in the backyard. The mob then set fire to a car and two motorcycles parked at the home of the regional governor’s son. The police said the rioting lasted for about four hours and that they struggled to contain the mayhem.
The next day hundreds of protesters gathered in front of regional government buildings and demanded the governor’s resignation. The protesters expressed frustration with poverty, widespread unemployment, and corruption. Law enforcement officers used teargas, water cannons, and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd, detaining dozens of protesters.
Human Rights Watch is not in a position to assess whether the circumstances warranted use of force to disperse the protesters, nor if law enforcement escalated the use of force in a proportionate manner. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has a mission in Baku and has carried out police training programs, should examine whether the use of force was carried out in accordance with international standards, Human Rights Watch said.
Because rubber bullets may in certain circumstances have lethal force, they should be treated for practical purposes as firearms, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers state that “law enforcement officials must not use firearms against persons except in self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury.”
“A lot of questions need to be answered about what happened in Ismayilli,” Gogia said. “Was the use of force necessary? Did police exhaust non-violent methods of crowd dispersal? And if so, was the force used proportionate to the threat? The authorities should allow human rights defenders to look into these issues without hindrance.”
Detention and Ill-treatment
Police have not yet released official data on how many people were detained. In Ismayilli, local activists told Human Rights Watch that at least 150 people were arrested on January 24 and 25, although some media reports cite higher figures. Most detainees were transferred to nearby districts of Gokchay, Gabala, and Shamakhi, while some were taken to Baku’s Nasimi district police station.
There have been credible allegations of ill-treatment during detention and in police custody. “Rufat” (name altered for security considerations), a close relative of a released detainee, told Human Rights Watch that the detainee, “Emin,” had been beaten in police custody to coerce him into signing a false confession that he had engaged in looting. Rufat said that police beat Emin on his chest using a rubber truncheon, as a result of which Emin was still having severe chest pains. Emin was released after a court appearance in which he was fined.
“Authorities should conduct prompt, thorough, and effective investigation into all allegations of ill-treatment in custody and hold those responsible to account,” Gogia said.
Many of the detainees were tried for misdemeanor violations for participating in unsanctioned demonstrations and resisting police orders. Human Rights Watch interviewed several lawyers who had problems getting access to their clients and defending them effectively and who said trials were short and perfunctory.
One of the lawyers said that despite numerous requests he was not allowed to meet confidentially with his client, who was detained on January 25 and is being held at the Organized Crime Unit in Baku. Police initially denied him access altogether, and later said he could meet with the client only in presence of an investigator.
“I had information that my client had been beaten in custody and wanted to have a face-to-face meeting with him,” the lawyer said. “However, they [police] wanted the investigator to be present there, so that my client would not speak to me openly. I refused to have such a meeting altogether.”
Human Rights Watch has previously reported on torture and ill-treatment at the Organized Crime Unit.
Another lawyer, who requested anonymity, told Human Rights Watch that police asked him to serve as a defense lawyer for one of the detainees and instructed him to urge the man to sign a prepared confession and plead guilty. The lawyer refused.
Another lawyer told Human Rights Watch that trials lasted barely more than a few minutes. He said he had observed the Gokchay District Court sentence about 80 detainees under administrative proceedings in less than 10 minutes.
All detainees have the right to due process, including a right to a lawyer of their choosing, as well as to an open and fair trial, and the authorities should guarantee these rights, Human Rights Watch said.
According to numerous media reports, Ismayilli is under effective lockdown. Several residents described to Human Rights Watch a heavy police presence in the area, including armored vehicles. While there is no official curfew, the residents are urged not to leave their homes after 8 p.m. Reports suggest that police have been using amateur video footage available online to identify participants in protest actions and detain them.
Violent Dispersal of Peaceful Baku Protest
On January 26, youth activists tried to organize a protest in Baku’s center to express support for people in Ismayilli. Starting in early morning, uniformed and plainclothes police amassed in the city center. As soon as the activists started arriving, chanting “Freedom!” or other slogans, police rounded them up, shoving them into waiting buses and police cars. Numerous amateur videos, as well as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty live streaming from the protest, showed that the demonstration was peaceful and that the protesters did not offer any resistance or use any violence.
“Although the demonstration was unsanctioned, the police should not have used force to disperse protesters who posed no threat,” Gogia said.
Police rounded up more than 50 of the Baku protesters. Some were released after being transported to the outskirts of Baku. Others were taken into police detention and faced administrative charges for participating in and organizing an unsanctioned rally. Local courts sentenced five activists to administrative imprisonment ranging from 13 to 15 days, including the well-known blogger and social media activist Emin Milli, who is serving a 15-day sentence.
The courts also fined three activists up to 2,500 AZN (about US$3,200) for organizing an unsanctioned protest, while 17 protesters were fined between 400 (about $510) and 600 AZN (about $760) for participating in an unauthorized protest.
Since early 2006, authorities have not authorized a single opposition protest in the center of Baku and have forced all political demonstrations into designated zones on the outskirts of the city.
Such a blanket ban on freedom of assembly in the central areas of Baku goes against Azerbaijan’s international commitments to freedom of assembly and expression, Human Rights Watch said. As the European Court of Human Rights has warned, “Sweeping measures of preventive nature to suppress freedom of assembly and expression … do a disservice to democracy and often endanger it.”
In November 2012, in a further restrictive move, the parliament increased sanctions for participating in and organizing unauthorized protests, establishing fines of up to 1,000 AZN ($1,274) for participating and 3,000 AZN (US$3,822) for organizing.
Azerbaijan is a party to a number of human rights treaties, including the European Convention on Human Rights, which imposes obligations on the government to respect the right of assembly and to refrain in all circumstances from engaging in prohibited ill-treatment of protesters. The government also has a duty to investigate and remedy violations.
The Council of Europe assembly’s resolution on Azerbaijan’s rights record highlighted many outstanding concerns, including violations of freedom of assembly. The assembly urged the authorities to ensure freedom of assembly by allowing protest actions to take place in some areas of Baku city center and called on them to “refrain from using disproportionate police force against peaceful protesters.”
“Azerbaijan should heed to the Council of Europe’s recommendations and stop banning peaceful assemblies, release anyone detained for merely expressing their views publicly, and investigate law enforcements’ actions,” Gogia said.