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Azerbaijan’s justice system once again turned into a political tool of repression this week when a Baku court sentenced Anar Mammadli, an independent election monitoring group leader, and two of his colleagues to lengthy prison terms to stop their activism.

As a chairman of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDS) since 2001, Mammadli has exposed election fraud and politically-motivated arrests and prosecutions in Azerbaijan. Most recently, he carried out this work in advance of the October 2013 presidential vote, which saw President Ilham Aliyev reelected for a third term. Such activism hardly goes unpunished in Azerbaijan today.

Together with Anar Mammadli, the court convicted Bashir Suleymanli, executive director of EMDS, and Elnur Mammadov, head of a partner group, International Organization of Volunteers. It sentenced Mammadli and Suleymanli to five years and six months and three years and six months, respectively; while Mammadov was sentenced to two years on probation.

In a particularly cynical move, one of the charges against Mammadli included “abuse of office”, allegedly for intending to influence the election results. Other charges, like tax evasion and illegal entrepreneurship, stem from EMDS’s lack of state registration, despite numerous attempts to do so. The EMDS has been using International Organization of Volunteers, which is registered, to receive grant money, a common practice in Azerbaijan as human rights groups routinely face difficulties when they try to register. In his last words before convicted, Mammadli reminded the court that the “denial of registration of an NGO does not mean that the organization should cease its activities. Because, the freedom of association is fundamental right of every citizen of this country and it is duty of the state to recognize this right without any political discrimination.”

It seems clear that EMDS was targeted for their critical reporting. The prosecutor general’s office opened an investigation against it a week after EMDS published its preliminary post-election report, in which it concluded that Azerbaijan’s October 9 election failed to meet international standards. EMDS wasn’t alone—the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe issued a report with similar findings.

Amnesty International has declared Mammadli a prisoner of conscience. Two UN Special Rapporteurs—on freedom of association and on human rights defenders—have also urged Azerbaijan to drop charges against them.

This blatant perversion of the criminal justice system to punish and deter the government critics goes flatly against Azerbaijan’s international commitments, including that of the Council of Europe, Europe’s foremost human rights body. It’s a profoundly disturbing irony that Azerbaijan currently holds that organization’s rotating chairmanship.  

Instead of whipping up fanfare around this six-month chairmanship, the government would be better off fulfilling the obligations it undertook 13 years ago when joining the body. Releasing Mammadli, Suleymanli, and Mammadov, together with dozens of other imprisoned activists, is the obvious place to start. The international community, too, should press harder to secure their release.

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