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Alas, it’s hardly news anymore that activists are handed long prison sentences in Azerbaijan. This has been a mainstay in the government’s two-year effort to silence its critics.

But when it happens two days before the Council of Europe’s Secretary General visits Baku, and nine days before the country officially takes over the rotating chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers, everyone should sit up and take notice how justice is taking another blow in Azerbaijan.

In a politically-motivated trial, Baku’s Grave Crimes Court convicted eight youth activists today of organizing mass disorders and illegal drugs and weapons possession, and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from six to eight years. Seven of them: Bakhtiyar Guliyev, Shahin Novruzlu, Mahammad Azizov, Rashad Hasanov, Uzeyir Mammadli, Rashadat Akhundov, and Zaur Gurbanli are from the youth opposition movement NIDA [“exclamation mark” in Azeri], which was founded in 2010 and campaigns for democratic reforms and the rule of law in Azerbaijan. One of them, Ilkin Rustemzadeh, is a member of another youth movement Azad Genchlik (Free Youth).

The court sentenced Akhundiov, Gurbanli and Rustemzadeh to eight years; Azizov and Hasanli to seven and a half years; Guliyev and Mammadli to seven, and Novruzlu to six years in prison.

All eight frequently posted criticism about alleged government corruption and human rights abuses on Facebook and Twitter; two of them administered a Facebook page that was a platform for caricature, satire, and criticism of the government.

They have been behind bars since their arrest more than a year ago. The investigations and legal processes in the cases against the men have been marred by numerous irregularities, violations of due process, and allegations of serious human rights abuses. These include the refusal to grant them access to the lawyers of their choosing during the initial days of their detention, and lack of investigation into credible allegations of ill treatment in custody.

Imprisoning these activists is a part of a larger crackdown that Azerbaijani authorities have pursued against critical voices in the country in the past two years. In the past year alone, they have arrested or imprisoned dozens of political activists, bloggers, and the like on bogus charges.

As Azerbaijan prepares to celebrate its chairmanship of the Europe’s foremost human rights body, the Council of Europe and its member-states should send a clear message to Baku that the chairmanship comes with responsibilities; responsibilities to uphold human rights standards undertaken by the country during its accession in 2001 and conveniently forgotten or left on paper since then.

When Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland is in Baku, he should impress upon the Azerbaijani leadership that business as usual is possible only if Azerbaijan starts respecting the institution’s standards and allows greater freedoms in the country. Ending the injustice against these eight young men would be a good place to start. 

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