(Berlin) – Azerbaijan’s detention of an election monitoring group leader reflects the government’s expanded efforts to silence its critics. The authorities should immediately release Anar Mammadli and drop all politically motivated charges against him.
On December 16, 2013, police in Baku arrested Mammadli, chairman of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre (EMDS), a leading independent election monitoring group in Azerbaijan that has been observing elections in the country for more than 12 years. The same day, a court sent Mammadli to pretrial custody for three months while he is being investigated on charges of tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, and abuse of office.
“The arrest of a prominent election monitor is the latest strike in the government’s campaign against independent activists,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “By arresting Mammadli, the authorities are sending a message that they are more interested in silencing an inconvenient messenger than investigating credible reports of election fraud.”
The EMDS closely monitored Azerbaijan’s October 9 presidential election and concluded that it was neither free nor fair. The group documented extensive fraud on election day, as well as politically motivated arrests and prosecutions in the months before the vote. Other independent observers, including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, also found that the elections failed to meet international standards.
The Grave Crimes Investigation Unit of the prosecutor general’s office opened an investigation against the EMDS on October 27. On October 31 the prosecutor’s office searched the offices of the group and of its partner organization, the International Organization of Volunteers, confiscating two computers and printed matter, including reports, news releases, and financial documents. On November 1 a prosecutor’s office representative said in a media interview that his office was looking into “irregularities at EMDS.”
One of the charges against Mammadli is “abuse of office,” under article 308.2 of the criminal code, allegedly for intending to influence the election results.
“Accusing a longtime election observer of attempting to influence the vote is a blatant and cynical attempt at political retribution,” Gogia said.
Other charges against Mammadli stem from his group’s lack of state registration. EMDS has made numerous attempts over many years to register, and a case it brought to the European Court of Human Rights over the government’s failure to allow it to register is pending. Meanwhile, the EMDS has been using a registered group to receive grant money, a common practice in Azerbaijan considering the difficulties human rights groups face when they try to register.
After interrogating Mammadli on December 16, the prosecutor’s office asked the Nasimi District Court to detain him pending his trial. The court granted the prosecutor’s request in a hearing in which Mammadli was not allowed to be represented by a lawyer of his choosing.
Rashid Hajili, Mammadli’s lawyer, was able to visit his client only after the hearing. He told Human Rights Watch that despite Mammadli’s persistent request to be represented by his lawyer, he was refused and instead was provided with a state-appointed lawyer.
Hajili also said that the only reasons the prosecutor’s office gave for seeking pretrial detention were that Mammadli had extensive contacts abroad and could abscond or, if he remained at large, influence witnesses or continue “illegal entrepreneurship.” The prosecutor’s vague claims seemed intended to punish Mammadli rather than to prevent interference with the prosecution, Human Rights Watch said.
In a November 26 statement, the EMDS said it had fully cooperated with the investigation. Mammadli and several other employees of the group willingly appeared every time the Grave Crimes Unit summoned them for questioning. They respected the prohibition on leaving the country during the investigation, forcing Mammadli to cancel his plans to attend the European Union Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Azerbaijan has ratified, states, “It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody.” The United Nations 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.
In the absence of a lawful and credible basis for detaining Mammadli, he should be freed from custody, Human Rights Watch said.
Mammadli’s arrest takes place amid a government crackdown on activists and journalists critical of the government. Since January, Azerbaijani authorities have arrested dozens of political activists on bogus charges, imprisoned independent journalists, broken up several peaceful public demonstrations, and adopted legislation that further restricted fundamental freedoms.
“Mammadli’s arrest sends a chilling message to all activists critical of the government to keep quiet,” Gogia said. “Azerbaijan’s international partners should press the Azerbaijan authorities to free Mammadli and drop the politically motivated charges against him.”
Background on the EMDS
The Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre (EMDS) is a successor organization to the Election Monitoring Centre (EMC), which was founded in 2001 and monitored and provided independent assessment of six elections in Azerbaijan before it was liquidated in 2008. The group was denied registration six times, and was finally registered only in February 2008.
In April 2008 the Justice Ministry initiated legal proceedings against the EMC, claiming it had provided inaccurate information about its founders and legal address and that it had opened eight legal offices in the regions without informing the ministry. In May the Khatai District Court of Baku found that the group had violated registration laws and ordered it liquidated. The decision to immediately cancel the registration, rather than issue a warning and allow the group to correct any mistakes in the registration, suggested that the action was politically motivated.
The EMC members established the EMDS and after several failed attempts to register, they brought a case before the European Court of Human Rights. The EMDS is a member of the European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations, the European Platform for Democratic Elections, and the Civil Society Forum of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership Programme.