(Berlin) – Azerbaijan falls far short of Council of Europe membership commitments, even as it assumes chairmanship of the organization. Azerbaijan will assume the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers on May 14, 2014, following years of relentless crackdown on criticism.
“The Council of Europe is the region’s foremost human rights body, but Azerbaijan’s chairmanship comes at a time when the government is blatantly flouting the organization’s core standards,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Council of Europe’s leadership should make clear to Azerbaijan that it needs to free unjustly imprisoned government critics and undertake far-reaching rights reform.”
In the past two years, Azerbaijani authorities have brought or threatened unfounded criminal charges against at least 38 political activists, journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders, most of whom are behind bars. In its September 2013 report “Tightening the Screws: Azerbaijan’s Crackdown on Civil Society and Dissent,” and in 35 follow-up interviews and other research since then, Human Rights Watch documented the authorities’ use of a range of criminal charges, including drug and weapons possession, incitement to violence, hooliganism, tax evasion, and even treason.
The circumstances of the criminal investigations and numerous violations in legal proceedings leave little doubt that the charges against these critics are bogus and intended to punish them for their independent activism and criticism of the authorities, Human Rights Watch said.
Among those imprisoned are eight youth political activists sentenced on May 6, 2014, to prison terms ranging from six to eight years; five young men whose trials are ongoing or pending who administered or blogged actively on Facebook pages that sharply criticized the government; Ilgar Mammadov, a prominent political analyst who intended to run for president in 2013 and Tofig Yagublu, deputy chair of the opposition political party Musavat, both of whom in March 2014 were sentenced to seven and five years, respectively, in prison; and Yadigar Sadigov, an adviser to Musavat,sentenced to six years in prison on January 14.
In April, Rauf Mirgadirov, anoutspoken reporter and commentator, was arrested in Baku’s international airport after he was unlawfully deported from Turkey and is facing treason charges. In December 2013, police arrested Anar Mammadli, chairman of Azerbaijan’s leading independent election monitoring group. He is on trial on trumped-up charges ranging from tax evasion to abuse of office.
Azerbaijani authorities severely limit freedom of assembly and use force to disperse any unsanctioned protests. In a recent example on May 6, 2014, police in Baku violently dispersed a peaceful crowd of about 200 who had gathered at the courthouse in support of the eight youth activists sentenced that day. At least 26 were arrested. Courts fined 12 of them and sentenced 5 to misdemeanor jail terms of 15 to 30 days. Among them was Kemale Benenyarli, whom police struck several times on the head as they questioned her. Benenyarli’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that Benenyarli has several bruises on her head and has had headaches and vomiting as a result. The Interior Ministry has denied the allegations.
When Azerbaijan became a Council of Europe member in 2001, one of the commitments to which it agreed was the release of all political prisoners and an end to silencing its critics by prosecuting them on politically motivated charges. A January 2013 resolution adopted by the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly highlighted the ongoing problem of politically motivated prosecutions, concluding, “The combination of the restrictive implementation of freedoms with unfair trials and the undue influence of the executive results in the systemic detention of people who may be considered prisoners of conscience.”
The resolution urges Baku to review the cases of human rights defenders, activists, and journalists who have been imprisoned on criminal charges and whose trials did not meet international standards. It also urges the authorities to “use all available legal tools to release those prisoners whose detention gives rise to justified doubts and legitimate concerns.”
Securing Azerbaijan’s compliance with its Council of Europe commitments, including the release of those held on politically motivated charges, should be a top priority for the organization and its member states, Human Rights Watch said.
“The result of the government’s arrest campaign is an ever-shrinking space for freedom of expression, assembly, and association in Azerbaijan,” Gogia said. “Instead of addressing this problem in the lead-up to its Council of Europe chairmanship, the government has only stepped up the repression.”
Updates on Politically Motivated Arrests and Convictions in Azerbaijan
The September 2013 Human Rights Watch report “Tightening the Screws: Azerbaijan’s Crackdown on Civil Society and Dissent” documented the arrest and imprisonment of several high-ranking members of opposition political parties, government critics with large followings on social media, and people who had frequently been involved in political protests. In the eight months since the report was published, 17 people whose cases the report documented and who were awaiting trial have been convicted and sentenced to prison; 2 have been released; and 10 more have been arrested and are behind bars pending criminal investigations or trials.
Below is an updated summary of cases documented in the report and of arrests that took place since its publication. The update is based on 35 phone interviews, as well as email, Skype, and Facebook communications with relatives, lawyers, and others close to the cases of imprisoned activists and journalists, staff of nongovernmental organizations, journalists, and activists with youth groups and political parties.
On May 6, 2014, the Baku Grave Crimes Court sentenced eight political youth activists to prison terms ranging from six to eight years on a series of bogus charges related to an alleged plan to instigate violence at a March 2013 protest that the authorities violently dispersed before it began. Seven of them – Bakhtiyar Guliyev,Shahin Novruzlu,Mahammad Azizov,Rashad Hasanov,Uzeyir Mammadli,Rashadat Akhundov,andZaur 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. The eighth, Ilkin Rustemzadeh, is a member of another youth movement, Azad Genchlik (Free Youth).
During the trial, at least three activists alleged that police had beaten them while they were in National Security Ministry custody, but the prosecutor’s office failed to effectively investigate the allegations.
Social Media Activists
Human Rights Watch has documented the Azerbaijani authorities’ pattern of pressing spurious drug possession charges to lock up their critics. In recent months, five more Facebook and other social media activists have been arrested or convicted on illegal drug possession charges. None had access to a lawyer of their choosing during their initial interrogations or remand hearings, while at least three complained of ill-treatment in police custody.
Abdul Abilov, 32,a social media activist and the administrator of the critical Facebook pages “Yaltaqlara dur deyək!” (“Stop those flattering the regime!”) and “Seçki saxtakarlığı” (“Election Fraud”),was arrested on November 22, 2013, in Baku on narcotics-related charges. Police claimed that drugs were found both in Abilov’s pocket and in his home. Both Facebook pages were shut down shortly after police seized his computer during a search of his home.
Abilov’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that at his trial, which is ongoing, Abilov said that the drugs were planted and that during his interrogation police asked him questions only about his critical posts, political activism, and relationship to the opposition Popular Front Party. Abilov was denied access to a lawyer of his own choosing during initial police interrogation and at his pretrial detention hearing.
If convicted, Abilov could face up to 12 years in prison.
Omar Mammadov,19, is a popular blogger, administrator of the Facebook page “AzTV-dən seçmələr” (“Exclusives from AzTV”), and founder of the pro-opposition Axın(Stream) youth movement. He was arrested on spurious narcotics-related charges on January 24, 2014. Mammadov was not allowed to inform his family about his detention or retain a lawyer of his choosing before he was sent for three months of pretrial custody on January 25.
“Exclusives from AzTV” regularly criticized the country’s leading state television channel’s coverage of events. It featured satire and critical posts on alleged corruption, police conduct, violation of property rights, and repression of youth activists.
Prior to his son’s arrest, police twice summoned Mammadov’s father and warned him to keep his son, then studying abroad, away from opposition political activity. Two days before Mammadov’s arrest, police invited Mammadov and his father for a “talk,” confiscated his laptop, and demanded that Mammadov close the “Exclusives from AzTV” Facebook page.
Mammadov’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that police beat Mammadovin custody, although the prosecutor’s office said its investigation found no evidence of a beating. Forensic exam results showed no signs of illicit drug use. His trial began on April 30 and is ongoing. If convicted, Mammadov could face up to 12 years in prison.
Elvin Karimov, 26, a blogger and administrator of the Facebook page “Azad Söz” (Free Speech) was arrested on January 18 and held for two days in incommunicado detention.
“Free Speech” featured caricatures and blogs about police violence, socio-economic problems, and human rights violations. During a search of his home, police confiscated Karimov’s computer and soon after the “Free Word” Facebook page was shut down for several weeks.
Karimov was sent for three months of pretrial detention on January 20 on narcotics-related charges. He was denied access to a lawyer of his choosing during both police interrogations and the pretrial detention hearing. A friend of Karimov’s, who was co-administrator of the Facebook page, told Human Rights Watch that National Security Ministry officials warned Karimov’s parents that if they spoke to the media or anyone else about the case, their son would face a lengthy prison term and possible ill-treatment. Karmiov’s parents have since gone public about these threats.
If convicted, Karimov could face up to 12 years in prison.
Elsever Murselli, 18, a Facebook activist, was arrested one week before Azerbaijan’s October 9, 2013 presidential vote and was sentenced in April 2014 to five years in prison on narcotics possession charges. Based in Khachmaz, northern Azerbaijan, Murselli was active on social media during the lead-up to the presidential election, when he posted on Facebook about social problems in the region and alleged corruption and nepotism and called on people to vote for a political opposition candidate, Jamil Hasanly. Murselli had also participated in pre-election opposition demonstrations and posted video footage of the rallies online.
Police warned Murselli’s family that he could get a lengthy prison sentence if the family publicized the arrest to the media or retained a lawyer of their choosing; he was instead defended by a state-appointed lawyer.
Rashad Ramazanov,a well-known blogger who actively criticized the Azerbaijani government on Facebook and other social media, was arrested in May 2013 and convicted in November of dubious drug charges and sentenced to nine years in prison.
On July 3, the Sumgait District Court convictedDashgin Malikov, a 22-year-old activist with theAzerbaijan opposition Popular Front Party, to two years and a half in prison on drug charges. On May 8, 2014, Azerbaijani authorities freed Malikov from prison, and on the same day state media announced that he had renounced his opposition party membership and joined the ruling party.
In March 2014 Ilgar Mammadov, a prominent political analyst and a chairman of the opposition group REAL (Republican Alternative), and Tofig Yagublu, deputy chair of the opposition political party Musavat and a columnist with the opposition daily Yeni Musavat, were sentenced to seven and five years in prison, respectively. After spending more than 13 months in pretrial custody, Mammadov and Yagublu were found guilty of instigating violence on January 24, 2013, in the Ismayilli district, a regional center northwest of Baku, during riots calling for the governor’s resignation.
In January 2014 Yadigar Sadigov,a former history professor and adviser to the chair of the opposition party Musavat, was sentenced to six years in prison on hooliganism charges. He was detained on June 27, 2013, after a Nagorno-Karabakh war veteran filed a complaint with the police alleging that Sadigov had beaten him.
In November 2013 Taleh Bagirov,areligious scholar and activist, was sentenced to two years in prison on illegal drug possession charges. Bagirov was arrested in March 2013, one week after his Friday sermon in a mosque sharply criticizing the government.
Nongovernmental Group Leaders/Human Rights Defenders
In December 2013 authorities arrested Anar Mammadli, chairman of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDS), a leading independent election monitoring group in Azerbaijan, which monitored the 2013 October presidential vote and concluded that it was neither free nor fair. On October 27, about a week after the EMDS’s preliminary post-election report was published, the prosecutor general’s office opened an investigation against the EMDS. Four days later, officials searched its office, confiscating equipment, financial documents, and material and findings that were needed for the final report, preventing its publication.
The charges against Mammadli range from tax evasion to abuse of office – allegedly for intending to influence the election results – to the group’s lack of state registration, even though Mammadli unsuccessfully tried to register it many times. The trial of Mammadli and his two co-defendants and colleagues, Bashir Suleymanli and Elnur Mammadov, who are free on bail, started on April 21, 2014.
On April 28, Azerbaijani authorities barred Leyla Yunus, director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, and her husband, Arif Yunus, from boarding a flight to attend a conference in Brussels, confiscated their passports, questioned them at length, and searched their home and office. Authorities have barred them from traveling abroad because they are witnesses in a criminal investigation against the journalist Rauf Mirgadirov, even though there is no provision in Azerbaijani law to bar people who are designated witnesses in a criminal investigation from leaving the country.
The Institute for Peace and Democracy focuses on combating politically motivated prosecutions, corruption, violence against women, and unlawful house evictions. It has also been involved in projects aimed at improving people-to-people dialogue between people in Azerbaijan and Armenia, against the background of the unresolved conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, a primarily ethnic Armenian-populated autonomous enclave in Azerbaijan. Mirgadirov, arrested in April, was also involved in this initiative.
On April 4 Tofig Gasimov, a human rights defender and member of Support to Democracy, an independent group in southeast Azerbaijan, was sentenced to 10 days’ detention on a misdemeanor charge for allegedly swearing in public. Just before he was to be released from administrative detention, authorities charged him with extortion, and a court sent him for three months of pretrial custody.
Support to Democracy exposed allegations of local authorities’ misappropriations of state money. It also monitored the human rights situation and supported human rights defenders in the region. In March Gasimov and his colleague wrote a letter to President Aliyev asking him to take measures against corruption.
Hasan Huseynli, a prominent social rights campaigner and head of an independent group, Intelligent Citizen, was arrested on March 31 in Ganja, in northwest Azerbaijan. Two days later police released him on his own recognizance, pending an investigation on trumped-up criminal charges of hooliganism for allegedly attempting to stab someone. On April 24 he faced an additional charge of illegal possession of a knife. Huseynli denies the charges, saying that he had never before seen the alleged victim.
Huseynli’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that in the months before his arrest police and local authorities had questioned Huseynli and warned him to stop accepting foreign funding and to cut all ties with foreign organizations. Huseynli is barred from leaving his home town without police permission while the investigation is ongoing.
Bakhtiyar Mammadov, a human rights lawyer sentenced in February 2013 to eight years in prison on bogus extortion charges, remains in prison.
Ogtay Gulaliyev and Ilham Amiraslanov, two defenders associated with the nongovernmental group Kur Civil Union, were arrested in April and June 2012, respectively, in apparent retribution for their work protecting flood victims in southern Azerbaijan. Gulaliyev was released pending investigation in June 2012. Amiraslanov, who was sentenced to two years in prison on spurious charges of weapons possession, was paroled in December 2013.
Though the men are at liberty, the criminal cases against them have not been withdrawn, their movements are restricted, and both are required to report weekly to local police. In August Gulaliyev was not allowed to leave the country for surgery abroad.
Rauf Mirgadirov, the outspokenAnkara-based correspondent for independent Azerbaijani newspapers Ayna and Zerkalo, was arrested at Baku’s international airport on April 19, 2014, after being deported from Turkey, where he had lived with his family since 2010. Mirgadirov had reported on political developments and human rights issues in Azerbaijan and Turkey and often criticized the deteriorating political and human rights situations in both countries.
On April 21, 2014, Baku’s Nasimi District Court sent Mirgadirov for three months in pretrial custody, pending an investigation on espionage charges. The charges stem from his involvement in “second track diplomacy” between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In 2008-2009 Mirgadirov participated in meetings in Armenia organized by nongovernmental organizations aimed at improving people-to-people dialogue between the conflicting sides.
If convicted, Mirgadirov could face a sentence of 10 years to life.
Parviz Hashimli, editor of the news website Moderator and a reporter for the opposition daily Bizim Yol, was arrested on September 18, 2013, by the National Security Ministry. Police searched Hashimli’s home in Baku and claimed to find a pistol and 30 hand grenades. Elchin Sadigov, Hashimli’s lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that the police did not present a search warrant. Hashimli faces charges of smuggling and illegal weapons possession. The lawyer told Human Rights Watch that Hashimli was granted access to his client only a week after his arrest.
During his trial, which is ongoing, Hashimli stated that he had been beaten and ill-treated while in National Security Ministry detention. The ministry refuted the claim, and the prosecutor’s office did not investigate.
If convicted, Hashimli could face up to 13 years in prison.
Sardar Alibeyli, a journalist and editor of the pro-opposition newspaper Nota Bene and of PS Nota news portal, was sentenced in November to four years in prison on hooliganism charges. Police arrested Alibeyli on July 31, and alleged that a victim accused Alibeyli of hitting the victim in the face with a stone.
Hilal Mammadov, former editor-in-chief of the Tolishi Sado newspaper and the deputy head of the Talysh Cultural Center, was sentenced to five years in prison in September 2013 for illegal drug possession, treason, and incitement of hatred, hostility, and ethnic discrimination charges. Mammadov was arrested on June 2012, one week after NTV, a pro-Kremlin Russian station, broadcast an interview with Mammadov in which he said that a satirical political rap song that went viral on YouTube did more to promote Azerbaijan than the government’s public relations efforts.
Avaz Zeynalli, the opposition newspaper Khural’s editor-in-chief, sentenced on March 12, 2013, to nine years in prison on questionable extortion charges apparently brought in retaliation for Khural’s critical reporting. He remains in prison.
Faramaz Novruzoglu, a freelance journalist who has faced years of persecution in reprisal for his coverage of allegations of government corruption, was sentenced on August 27, 2012, to four and a half years in prison on bogus charges of illegal border crossing and inciting mass disorder. He remains in prison.
Nijat Aliyev, the editor-in-chief of Azadxeber.az, an Islamist-oriented website, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in December 2013 on charges of illegal drug possession, the import and distribution of religious literature without appropriate authorization, calling for the violent overthrow of the authorities, and incitement of national, racial, or religious hatred. In the lead-up to the Eurovision Song Contest hosted by Azerbaijan in 2012, Aliyev had published a series of articles criticizing the government’s spending to host the event and also spoke against a proposed gay pride parade in Azerbaijan. He remains in prison.
Araz Guliyev, the editor of Xeber44.com, an Islamist news website, was sentenced in April 2013 to eight years in prison on five charges, including illegal weapons possession and organizing and participating in public disturbances. Police arrested Guliyev on September 8, 2012, when together with a group of devout Muslims he participated in a protest against the inclusion of dancing women in a local folklore festival. He remains in prison.
Two other media workers remain under investigation on spurious charges in an apparent retaliation for their critical reporting. Khadija Ismayilova,an outspoken investigative journalist who is known for her extensive reporting on government corruption, including the businesses of the ruling family, has been questioned several times since mid-February 2014 as a witness to an investigation of leaking of state secrets. The authorities summoned Ismayilova a few days after pro-government media outlets claimed she had handed files on Azerbaijani opposition politicians to the United States Senate staffers who were allegedly working as US intelligence agents, claims denied by the US embassy. Ismayilova has been a victim of an orchestrated smear campaign in the past. In early 2012, explicit video of Ismayilova appeared online containing intimate and illegally obtained images of her.
Mehman Huseynov, a photographer and social media activist with the Institute for Reporter Freedom and Safety (IRFS) who photographed and exposed police violence as Azerbaijan prepared for the Eurovision Song Contest in May 2012, was detained in June on spurious hooliganism charges. He was released shortly afterward on his own recognizance, but the criminal investigation is ongoing.