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President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan signed a decree today for the Novruz holiday, pardoning 148 prisoners, among them thirteen journalists, human rights defenders, and activists, who had been prosecuted on politically motivated charges.

Human rights defender Rasul Jafarov at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly in Baku in June 2014.  ©2014 Aziz Karimov

The pardon list includes: human rights campaigner Rasul Jafarov; the head of a local election monitoring group Anar Mammadli; youth activists from NIDA movement Rashad Hasanov, Rashadat Akhundov, Mammad Azizov, and Omar Mammadov; human rights defenders Taleh Khasmamedov and Hilal Mammadov; opposition Musavat party deputy chair Tofig Yagublu; journalists Parviz Hashimli and Yadigar Mammadli; also a blogger Siraj Karimov.

Also today, the Baku Appeals Court converted a six-year prison sentence imposed on journalist Rauf Mirgadirov to a five-year suspended term, and released him from the courtroom.

The charges and convictions against those released varied from hooliganism, drug possession, so-called economic crimes, and even treason, and was part of a bigger government crackdown against its critics. The practice reached a peak in 2015, with dozens of human rights defenders, journalists, political activists, and other critics prosecuted, convicted, or remaining in prison in this manner.

Today’s pardon is an important step and thrilling news to those who should not have been imprison in the first place. I am so happy for them and their families. But there is still a lot of work to do.
Khadija Ismayilova © Jahangir Yusif
Among those still behind bars on bogus charges are: political analyst Ilgar Mammadov, in defiance of the European Court of Human Rights decision on his case and the repeated calls by the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers to free him; human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev; and Azerbaijan’s prominent investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova. Also youth activist Ilkin Rustamzadeh and journalist Seymur Hazi. Many Azerbaijani activists have been campaigning tirelessly for the freedom of our colleagues. And many key international actors have generated public pressure by very clearly articulating their demand that the Azerbaijani government free these individuals, including the European Parliament, the governments — including the U.S. and most member states of the European Union — that joined a 2015 statement, led by the Irish delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Congressman Chris Smith, who introduced a bill proposing sanctions against Azerbaijan for the crackdown, the Council of Europe’s Secretary General and Human Rights Commissioner, and others.

Were it not for their principled leadership, Jafarov and others would probably have remained behind bars. So I say a heartfelt thanks, and must also urge them to continue to use their effective public diplomacy to secure the freedom of Intigam Aliyev; Khadija Ismayilova, and Ilgar Mammadov and others.

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