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(Berlin) – Azerbaijan’s jailing of a prominent independent journalist after his summary forcible return from Turkey bears the hallmarks of a coordinated operation that violates international law.

Turkey forcibly returned Rauf Mirgadirov to Azerbaijan without allowing him access to a lawyer or basic due process protections, in violation of its international legal obligations. Azerbaijan detained Mirgadirov upon his arrival to Baku International Airport on April 19, 2014. On April 21, Baku’s Nasimi District Court remanded him to three months in pretrial custody, pending investigation on espionage charges. If convicted, Mirgadirov, an outspoken reporter and commentator, faces a sentence of 10 years to life in prison.

“The possible coordination between Turkey and Azerbaijan to return Mirgadirov to Azerbaijan without due process should be immediately and thoroughly investigated,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Mirgadirov should be released pending an independent review of the charges against him.”

Mirgadirov has lived in Turkey with his family since August 2010 as an Ankara-based correspondent for the independent Azerbaijani newspapers Ayna and Zerkalo. He and his family had left Azerbaijan in 2010, fearing threats and pressure as a consequence of his critical reporting. But he had not sought asylum in Turkey.

Mirgadirov reported on political developments and key human rights issues in Azerbaijan and Turkey and often criticized the deteriorating political and human rights situations in both countries. In separate recent commentaries he deplored Azerbaijan’s detention and trial of eight youth activists and the Turkish government’s move to ban YouTube. In addition to his journalistic work, Mirgadirov had been involved in “second track diplomacy” between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the unresolved conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, a primarily ethnic Armenian-populated autonomous enclave in Azerbaijan. He participated in meetings organized by nongovernmental organizations aimed at improving people-to-people dialogue between the conflicting sides.

Mirgadirov’s lawyer, Fuad Agayev, told Human Rights Watch that on April 9, 2014, Mirgadirov and his wife, a journalist for the same publications, were summoned to the Directorate General of Press and Information office in Ankara and told without explanation that their accreditations had been cancelled. His lawyer and editors said that Mirgadirov’s accreditation had been valid until the end of 2014. Mirgadirov and his wife were given two weeks to leave Turkey.

Mirgadirov’s accreditation was cancelled shortly after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan met in Baku, raising concern that the cancellation of Mirgadirov and his wife’s accreditation and Mirgadirov’s deportation were related to the meeting, and that the entire operation was coordinated between the two countries.

Turkish authorities detained Mirgadirov on April 19 shortly after he and his family boarded a bus to leave the country for neighboring Georgia, suggesting that he had been under surveillance. Turkish authorities separated Mirgadirov from his family and put him on a plane to Baku. Mirgadirov was not permitted to contact his lawyer, nor was another lawyer appointed for him, despite his repeated requests for access to his lawyer. Turkish authorities failed to explain the grounds for his deportation or to provide an opportunity to challenge the decision. Azerbaijani Ministry of National Security officials detained Mirgadirov upon his arrival to Baku, and he remains in custody.

“Turkish officials brazenly snatched Mirgadirov up without cause and unlawfully returned him to Azerbaijan,” Denber said. “These shameless violations should be investigated and those responsible should be held to account.”

Under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), to which both Azerbaijan and Turkey are parties, a noncitizen who is a lawful resident of a country should not be expelled except “in pursuance of a decision reached in accordance with law” andis entitled to minimal procedural safeguards against expulsion (article 1, protocol 7). These include the right to submit reasons against his expulsion, to have his case reviewed, and to have legal representation for these purposes.

A key function of such safeguards includes preventing expulsions that would result in violations of other human rights guarantees such as the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment, arbitrary detention or a flagrant denial of a fair trial. Likewise, the requirement to ensure an effective remedy (article 13) imposes an obligation to ensure that a person facing expulsion can challenge the expulsion before it is carried out on the grounds that the expulsion would expose the person to a real risk of prohibited treatment, contrary to the European Convention.

In Mirgadirov’s case none of the essential due process guarantees were met, with the result that his deportation violated Turkey’s obligations. His deportation has placed a number of his other rights at risk.

For example, Azerbaijan has a record of torture and ill-treatment of detainees accused of activities perceived to be anti-government, often to extract incriminating testimony. By arbitrarily detaining and returning Mirgadirov to Azerbaijan, Turkey had an obligation to assess the risk that his return to Azerbaijan would violate the absolute obligation not to return anyone to a country where the person would face a serious risk of torture or ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said.

Mirgadirov’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the espionage charges against Mirgadirov stem from his trips to Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey in 2008 and 2009. The authorities allege that he met with Armenian security services and handed them information and photographs about the socio-political and military situation in Azerbaijan, considered state secrets.

Mirgadirov’s lawyer said that at the April 21 remand hearing, the prosecutor’s office did not present any evidence substantiating the accusations or the need for pretrial custody and that the presiding judge had dismissed the lawyer’s motions about these issues. Agayev told Human Rights Watch that Mirgadirov considered the charges to be bogus and intended to intimidate other human rights activists and journalists in the country. Mirgadirov acknowledged his participation in various conferences hosted by international organizations in Armenia and other countries, where he represented Azerbaijani civil society groups and presented the interests of his country, but he said that his participation was legitimate.

Mirgadirov’s arrest comes just few weeks before Azerbaijan assumes the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers. Since joining Europe’s foremost human rights body in January 2001, Azerbaijan has failed to meet many of the accession commitments. In the past year alone, Azerbaijani authorities have arrested dozens of political activists, bloggers, and others on trumped up or politically motivated charges in what appears to be a concerted effort to silence government’s critics. At least nine journalists and four Facebook activists are in jail on various trumped up charges.

“The context and timing of Mirgadirov’s arrest suggest that the case against him is politically motivated and intended to punish him for his outspoken views and to send a chilling message to others that dissent will not be tolerated,” Denber said. “The Council of Europe and its member states need to call on Azerbaijan to release Mirgadirov pending a review of the charges against him and to press Azerbaijan and Turkey to uphold their rights obligations.” 

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