(Berlin) – The arrest of two prominent government critics in Azerbaijan on broad charges of organizing mass disorder in Ismayilli raises concern they are facing political retribution. In January, mass protests in the town led to clashes with police.
On February 4, 2013, Baku’s Nasimi District Court remanded the two men – Ilgar Mammadov, a political analyst and chair of the opposition group “REAL,” and Tofig Yagublu, deputy chair of the opposition political party Musavat and a journalist with opposition daily Yeni Musavat – to two months’ pretrial custody. A court also remanded Ismayilli residents Mirkazim Abdullayev and Elshen Ismayilli to two months’ pretrial custody on the same charges.
“We’re concerned that last month’s violence will be used as a pretext to silence two outspoken government critics,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should release Mammadov and Yagublu from pretrial detention and produce credible evidence that the charges are justified.”
According to a charge sheet issued by the Prosecutor General’s Grave Crimes Investigation Department, Mammadov and Yagublu are accused of instigating protests and violence on January 24 in Ismayilli, a regional center about 200 kilometers northwest of Baku.
Riots and mass protests in Ismayilli followed a car accident on January 23 that allegedly involved a close relative of the Ismayilli region’s governor. On January 24, several clashes took place between law enforcement and protesters calling for the governor’s resignation. The protesters also expressed frustration with poverty, widespread unemployment, and corruption. Police used teargas and rubber bullets to quash the riots and restore order.
In the aftermath, dozens of people were arrested in Ismayilli; at least 12 remain in custody, facing criminal charges of looting and organizing riots. No investigation has been conducted into the legitimacy of the use of force by police.
Mammadov and Yagublu both traveled to Ismayilli on January 24 to find out what had happened. Yeni Musavat’s founder told the media that Yagublu went to Ismayilli on a reporting assignment for the paper. Police detained him shortly after his arrival and several hours later ensured that he left the town.
In a January 29 joint statement, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Interior and prosecutor general’s office said that Mammadov and Yagublu went to Ismayilli on January 24 and “urged residents to resist police, [and] block the traffic in order to violate socio-economic stability.”
To dispel concerns that the charges against Mammadov and Yagublu are spurious and politically motivated, the authorities should promptly disclose any credible evidence they have of activities the men engaged in that would constitute criminal wrongdoing, Human Rights Watch said.
“Azerbaijan’s harsh political climate and this government’s record of imprisoning people for political reasons suggests retaliation in this case,” Gogia said. “We fear that the authorities are trying to put the blame for protests on government critics, instead of investigating the roots of the unrest.”
Mammadov’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that his client was called to the prosecutor’s office on January 29 and February 4. On the morning of February 4, Mammadov was questioned as a witness to the Ismayilli unrest, but was re-designated as a suspect after cross-questioning with other witnesses. Because he was questioned as a witness, he had no lawyer during the process. Later that day, the prosecutor’s office charged Mammadov with offences under criminal code articles 233 (organization of or participation in actions inciting social unrest) and 315.2 (violence against an official). Yagublu faces identical charges.
The prosecutor’s order designating Mammadov as a suspect (on file with Human Rights Watch) states that he and Yagublu persuaded two Ismayilli residents, Elshen Ismayilli and Mirkazim Abdullayev, and others to assemble “many people” in front of the local municipality and “convinced Abdullayev and Ismayilli to throw stones at law enforcement agents.”
The order does not describe any evidence substantiating the accusations against Mammadov. Both men reject the allegations as ungrounded.
The prosecutor’s office requested that the court remand all four men to pretrial custody, claiming they were flight risks and would interfere with the investigation. According to Mammadov’s lawyer, the prosecutor’s office did not produce any information to substantiate these risks.
The recent arrests in Baku and Ismayilli came shortly after the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly adopted a report highly critical of the Azerbaijani government’s human rights record. The assembly said that “it is alarmed by reports … about the alleged use of so-called fabricated charges against activists and journalists.” It further elaborated that “the combination of the restrictive implementation of freedoms with unfair trials and the undue influence of the executive, results in systematic detentions of people who may be considered prisoners of conscience.”