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(Berlin) –An Azerbaijan court on February 27, 2013, sentenced a human rights lawyer to eight years in prison on the basis of a prosecution and conviction that appear politically motivated.  The lawyer, Bakhtiyar Mammadov, should be released pending an independent investigation into the charges and prosecution, Human Rights Watch said.

Mammadov represented several residents who were forcibly evicted from their homes in the capital, Baku, which were demolished in early 2012 as the government was building a performance hall for the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. Mammadov’s clients had challenged the government compensation package, and Mammadov alleged corruption by a high-level official involved in the compensation funds.

“This looks like yet another politically motivated prosecution in Azerbaijan,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The timing and context of the prosecution against Bakhtiyar Mammadov certainly make it look like the authorities are abusing the legal system for revenge.” 

In January, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Europe’s foremost intergovernmental human rights body, adopted a resolution calling attention to unfair trials and “undue influence of the executive” in political cases.

In 2011, Mammadov represented three families who challenged as inadequate the 10,000 AZN (US$12,700) in compensation the government offered in exchange for their homes. In addition to representing the families in court, Mammadov filed complaints on their behalf with the prosecutor’s office and the Anti-Corruption Committee alleging, among other concerns, misappropriation of funds earmarked as compensation for the evicted residents.

Mammadov’s clients were among the 29 families evicted from the area, which was under the jurisdiction of the Azerbaijani Navy.  The area was adjacent the construction site for the Baku Crystal Hall, the venue for the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest.

Mammadov alleged that  two million AZN (US$2.5 million) had been allocated from the state budget to compensate evicted residents, and that as a result of the misappropriation of funds, evicted families were being deprived of their fair compensation. His allegations were published in newspapers affiliated with the Azerbaijani political opposition.  

Mammadov was arrested on December 30, 2011, and has been in detention ever since. He was charged with large-scale extortion (article 182.3.2 of Azerbaijan’s criminal code) based on an allegation that he had attempted to blackmail the person he had accused of misappropriation.  Mammadov was accused of threatening to expose documents implicating a naval officer in misappropriation unless he paid Mammadov 18,000 AZN (US$23,000); Mammadov has denied the accusation.

Mammadov’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the trial was delayed due in part to the naval officer’s failure to respond to court summonses. The lawyer also said that the complaint was filed by third parties and that the naval officer stated in court that he has never met Mammadov.

At the time of his arrest, Mammadov had been subject to a seven-and-a-half year suspended sentence on an unrelated fraud conviction handed down in 2010. Under the terms of the suspended sentence, any new criminal charges could mean the original prison term would be imposed.

The verdict, in the Court of Grave Crimes, sentenced Mammadov to a total of eight years in prison, based on the extortion conviction and the years remaining on the 2010 conviction.

 “We believe the Azerbaijani authorities may have exploited Mammadov’s vulnerability to imprisonment under the old charge to silence his efforts to expose corruption,” Denber said.

Under article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Azerbaijan is a state party, “everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time or to release pending trial.”

“When the authorities deny bail, the burden is on them to ensure there are no undue delays in investigation and trial,” Denber said. “But Mammadov was held for 14 months, which could not be considered a reasonable amount of time.”

Mammadov’s wife and colleagues told Human Rights Watch that military personnel had warned Mammadov in the summer and autumn of 2011 to stop making the corruption allegations.  One of Mammadov’s relatives was warned repeatedly that she could lose her government job unless Mammadov stopped making the corruption allegations. The relative was not fired, but was demoted without explanation. 

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