(Berlin) – Azerbaijani authorities should immediately release from pretrial detention two senior political opposition leaders charged with organizing mass riots, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should either produce credible evidence that the charges against the two men are justified, or drop them. Their trial is scheduled to start November 4, 2013, in Sheki, a town in northwestern Azerbaijan.
Ilgar Mammadov, 43, is a prominent political analyst and chair of the opposition group REAL (Republican Alternative), one of Azerbaijan’s few alternative political voices. In February, prior to Mammadov’s arrest, REAL had planned to announce that he would be the movement’s candidate in the October presidential elections. Tofig Yagublu, 52, is deputy chair of the opposition political party Musavat and a columnist with the opposition daily newspaper Yeni Musavat.
“In the past year, Azerbaijan’s government has launched an unprecedented crackdown on critics,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Ilgar Mammadov and Tofig Yagublu are among the victims of Azerbaijan’s dragnet to silence dissent.”
Dozens of political activists have been arrested and imprisoned on bogus charges in recent months as part of the crackdown, which intensified leading up to the presidential election. In a September 2013 report, Human Rights Watch concluded that the crackdown amounted to a concerted effort to curtail opposition political activity and to punish public allegations of corruption and other criticism of government practices.
The charges against Mammadov and Yagublu stem from the prosecutor’s accusations that both men allegedly instigated violence on January 24, 2013 in Ismayilli, a regional center about 200 kilometers northwest of Baku, the capital. Anti-government riots broke out in Ismayilli on January 23, and on January 24 several clashes took place in front of the main government building between law enforcement officers and protesters calling for the governor’s resignation. Eighteen people, including Mammadov and Yagublu, are in pretrial detention in connection with the violence, facing criminal charges ranging from looting to organizing riots.
On January 24, Mammadov and Yagublu traveled separately to Ismayilli to find out what had happened there. Their lawyers told Human Rights Watch that each man spent about an hour there. Yagublu’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that his client was in Ismayilli as a journalist with Yeni Musavat. Police detained him for about 20 minutes after he arrived in the city and forced him to leave accompanied by police car until he reached Baku.
Soon after Yagublu returned to Baku, his lawyer filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office that police had interfered with his client’s work as a journalist.The prosecutor’s office did not respond.
Fuad Agayev, a lawyer for Mammadov, told Human Rights Watch that his client arrived in the town long after the initial violence had started on January 24 and spoke only to journalists and a few residents.
Mammadov and Yagublu are being charged with organizing mass violence under article 220.1 of the criminal code and violence against an official, article 315.2. If convicted they face prison sentences of up to 12 years. The indictment, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, alleges that Mammadov and Yagublu instructed people to put up barricades, throw stones at police, and storm the governor’s office during the January 24 clashes. Both have denied the criminal charges against them.
Mammadov and Yagublu have been in pretrial custody since February 4. The court ordered both men to be held at the prosecutor’s request on the grounds that they are alleged flight risks and would hinder the investigation, although lawyers told Human Rights Watch the prosecutor did not provide specific facts to support this conclusion. In hearings related to their custody, the judge has rejected without explanation all defense motions to release the two men from pretrial custody and to drop the charges.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Azerbaijan has ratified, states that, “It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody.” The Human Rights Committee, which provides authoritative interpretation of the covenant, has determined that bail should be granted except in cases in which there is a likelihood that the accused would abscond, destroy evidence, or influence witnesses. Since no such evidence has been put forward against Mammadov and Yagublu, both should be freed from detention pending the outcome of the trial, Human Rights Watch said.
During a September custody hearing Mammadov told the judge during a court hearing that prison officials tried to force him to write a letter to President Ilham Aliyev apologizing for his alleged actions and supporting the president’s re-election bid, promising Mammadov he would be released in exchange, his lawyer said. Mammadov refused, according to his lawyer.
Independent observers had raised concerns with the Azerbaijani government about Mammadov and Yagublu’s arrest. In a July 2013 report, for example, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, Nils Muižnieks, called their arrest “a very problematic development.” Amnesty International has declared Mammadov and Yagublu prisoners of conscience.