(Paris) – Azerbaijani authorities are using spurious drug possession charges to lock up political activists critical of the government, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch documented four recent cases, in three of which the detainees alleged ill-treatment in police custody.
“Using bogus drug possession charges to silence critical voices is not new, but the latest cases are part of an intensified government campaign against its critics as elections grow near,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These arrests and beatings send a very clear message to anyone who wants to engage in serious activism.”
Theauthorities should conduct independent and effective inquiries into the ill-treatment allegations and release the activists, pending independent review of the charges, Human Rights Watch said.
The arrests of the four activists, between March and May 2013, are part of a crackdown on civil society in Azerbaijan that began in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and has intensified as the country’s presidential election in October grows nearer.
Over the last two years, Azerbaijani authorities have arrested dozens of activists, journalists, and human rights defenders on questionable or no evidence, and accused them of various drug or weapons possession, hooliganism, and disturbance of public order offenses. Between August 2011 and May 2012 police arrested at least five journalists and human rights defenders on bogus drug charges.
Through interviews with lawyers and relatives, Human Rights Watch obtained detailed information about the four recent cases:
- The May 9 arrest and subsequent ill-treatment of Rashad Ramazanov (Rashad Hagigat Agaaddin), 31, a well-known blogger, who actively criticized the Azerbaijani government on Facebook and other social media;
- The March 31 arrest and subsequent ill-treatment of Taleh Bagirov, 29, an religious scholar and activist, shortly after he gave a sermon criticizing the Azerbaijani government and President Ilham Aliyev specifically;
- The March 26 arrest of Dashgin Malikov, 22, an activist with the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party. The arrest followed several postings on Facebook and other social media in which Malikov criticized the government; and
- The March 7 arrest and subsequent ill-treatment of Mahammad Azizov, 21, an activist with the NIDA youth movement.
In each of the four cases, drug possession charges were based on a small amount of narcotics allegedly discovered by the police following the arrest. The police said they found the drugs in detainees’ pockets or wallets during a search at the police station or, in Azizov’s case, during the search of his apartment. The detainees’ lawyers were not present during the searches and could not gain access to their clients for several days following their arrest.
Three of the men were asked no questions about the drug possession charges during interrogations, their lawyers told Human Rights Watch. Azizov and Bagirov were questioned about their political activities. Bagirov was questioned about his public statements and asked who ordered and paid for his last speech, his lawyer said.
None of the accused is a drug user, their lawyers said. In the one case in which authorities carried out a drug test, it was negative. On another case, drug test results are pending.
Lawyers for Ramazanov, Bagirov, and Azizov told Human Rights Watch that when they finally managed to visit their clients in detention, the men said that the police had beaten them. The lawyers said they observed bruises and wounds on their client’s faces.
In all four cases, the court sent the accused to pre-trial custody – Azizov, Bagirov, and Malikov for two months and Ramazanov for three months. In Azizov’s case they extended the detention for another two months and in Bagirov’s case for another month. The authorities did not allow the defendants to have their lawyers present at the court hearings. Instead, state-appointed lawyers participated in the hearings.
The denial of access to a lawyer of one’s choosing is a direct violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, article 14.3) and ofthe European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR, article 6.3 (c)). Azerbaijan is a party to both. Ill-treatment in detention is also unequivocally prohibitedby both treaties and under customary international law.
“These men are obviously at risk of further mistreatment in custody,” Gogia said. “The authorities should promptly investigate their allegations of ill-treatment and make sure that the detainees have unimpeded access to their lawyersand to an independent doctor.”
The case descriptions below are based on interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch researchers in April-May 2013. Human Rights Watch interviewed the lawyers of Azizov, Bagirov, and Malikov in person and Ramazanov’s lawyer over the phone. Human Rights Watch followed up with the lawyers to get an update on the latest developments in each case, and also spoke to Malikov’s father and one of his colleagues, to other members of NIDA in relation to Azizov’s case, and to a well-known lawyer, Aslan Ismailov, who has been involved in Ramazanov’s case.
Rashad Hagigat Agaaddin
On May 9, 2013, in Baku,plainclothes officers from theInterior Ministry’s Organized Crime Department arrested 31-year-old Rashad Ramazanov, a well-known blogger, who had actively criticized the Azerbaijani government on Facebook and other social media. Ramazanov wrote under the pen name Rashad Hagigat Agaaddin.
Ramazanov’s lawyer Rovshan Shiraliyev told Human Rights Watch that, following his client’s arrest, police took him to the Organized Crime Department, where during a search the investigators claimed to have discovered 9.05 grams of heroin in his trouser pocket. For several days following Ramazanov’s arrest, Shiraliyev was not allowed to see him and, according to the lawyer, Ramazanov’s wife had no information about his whereabouts.
On May 10, the Narimanov District Court in Baku sent Ramazanov to pre-trial custody for three months on charges under criminal code article 234.4.3,for illegal purchase, possession, and sale of a large amount of narcotics. The authorities kept him in police custody until May 20, in violation of the requirement under Azerbaijani criminal procedure to transfer the accused to a detention facility within 24 hours after the court order.
Shiraliyev told Human Rights Watch that he believed police physically abused his client while he was in their custody. Despite his numerous efforts, the lawyer was able to meet with Ramazanov only on May 17. He said:
I met him briefly in the presence of the investigator. There was a wound, about three centimetres long on his forehead. It was the result of a beating, Rashad said. There were also bruises on his neck and face, and reddened spots on his hands, which could be the result of the tight handcuffs. Rashad told me briefly about the beatings and said there were bruises all over his body.
He said he had been beaten in the car, on the day of his arrest, and then during the interrogations on the first three days of his detention. He said the interrogators beat him not to extract a confession, but simply to punish and humiliate him.
After Shiraliyev spoke publicly about his client’s abuse in custody, the Interior Ministry spokesman denied the allegations in a media interview, claiming that the Organized Crime Department is under direct control of the ministry and that the information about Ramazanov’s ill-treatment was a “total lie.”
On March 31 police in Baku arrested Bagirov, an religious scholar and activist, shortly after he criticized the Azerbaijani government– and specifically President Ilham Aliyev– in a sermon.
The police took Bagirov to the Sabunchu district police station in Baku, where during a search they claimed to have discovered one gram of heroin in his jacket pocket.
Bagirov’s lawyer, Anar Gasimli,who was able to see his client only a week after the arrest, told Human Rights Watch that Bagirov alleged that the police abused and beat him in custody:
When we met, I saw bruises on his face, under the eyes, and on his hands. He said he could not move three of his fingers. We immediately requested a medical examination, but the investigator did not respond to the request, and the judge was on vacation, so we never got a response.
Bagirov was charged under article 234.1 of the Azerbaijan Criminal Code, with illegal purchase or possession of narcotics without the intent to sell. However, during interrogations, Bagirov was questioned only about his public statements and asked who ordered and paid for his last speech. The investigators did not order a medical examination to determine whether Bagirov had consumed drugs,and the search of his house produced no incriminating evidence.
A Baku district court sent Bagirov to pre-trial detention for two months, and, on May 24, extended the pre-trial detention for another month.
On March 26, 2013, plainclothes policemen in Sumgait arrested Malikov, 22, an activist with the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party. The arrest followed several posts on Facebook and other social media in which Malikov criticized the government.
The police took Malikov to a police station, where they searched him. Malikov’s lawyer Asabali Mustafayev, who was not present during the search but later spoke to his client, told Human Rights Watch that during the search one of the policemen took out Malikov’s wallet, and while another was distracting Malikov, appeared to pull 1.5 grams of heroin out of it.
Mustafayev said that the police forced Malikov to sign a confession, which he later retracted. The day after his arrest, the Sumgait City Court sent him to pre-trial detention for two months on charges of illegal purchase or possession of drugs.
Mustafayev told Human Rights Watch that, just days before Malikov’s arrest, local police came to his house twice to ask for his party membership certificate and to talk with Malikov’s family about how his political activities would affect his future. The lawyer said it would be unlikely for anyone who knew the police were pursuing him to carry drugs around in his wallet. According to Mustafayev, a medical condition required Malikov to undergo bi-annual medical checks, none of which indicated previous drug use, and the medical examination ordered by the police showed no evidence of current drug use.
On March 7, 2013, Baku police arrested Azizov, 21, an activist with the NIDA youth movement, along with two other NIDA members – Bakhtiyar Guliyev and Shahin Novruzlu.
Azizov’s lawyer, Fariz Namazli, told Human Rights Watch that the police arrested Azizov in Baku’s Fountain Square and took him to his apartment. During an apartment search, the police allegedly discovered 174 grams of marijuana. In the search record Azizov stated that the marijuana did not belong to him.
On March 9, the Nasimi District Court sent Azizov topre-trial custody for two months on charges of illegal purchase or possession of drugs. The two other activists were charged with possession of illegal weapons.
For ten days following his arrest, Azizov was denied access to a lawyer of his choosing.
Two days later, Azerbaijani television channels showed police recordings of Guliyev and Azizov allegedly confessing to planning to use Molotov cocktails during a protest planned for March 10 in Baku to challenge police and destabilize the situation. Azizov also testified against another activist, Rashad Hasanov, who was arrested several days later. However, during a later police proceeding involving Hasanov and Azizov, Azizov retracted his statements, saying they had been made under duress.
Namazli told Human Rights Watch that Azizov was questioned only about his political activities and preparation for the protests, but was not asked any questions related to the drug possession charges. Investigators ordered a medical test to determine whether he was a drug user, Namazli said, but the results were not yet available.
Azizov told his lawyer that after he retracted his confession, officers at the Ministry of National Security, where Azizov was held at the time, punched him and beat him with clubs on his head and legs. Namazli said that as a result of the beating Azizov could not walk for four days and lost the hearing in his left ear.
On May 2, the court extended Azizov’s pre-trial detention for another two months.