(Berlin) – Azerbaijani authorities are using spurious drug charges to pursue long prison sentences against two youth activists, Human Rights Watch said today. The charges apparently are in retaliation for painting graffiti on a monument. The authorities should immediately free them and investigate credible allegations that they were ill-treated in police custody.

Giyas Ibrahimov, 22, and Bayram Mammadov, 21, were detained on May 10, 2016. On May 12, the Khatai district court ordered them held in pretrial detention for four months. The men were denied access to their lawyer until shortly before the May 12 hearing. During the hearing, the men described abuse and ill-treatment in police custody and the court agreed to investigate the allegations. If convicted they face up to 12 years in prison and confiscation of property.

“Azerbaijan has a sad history of fabricating drug charges against youth activists to intimidate them and deter others from following suit,” said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus director at Human Rights Watch. “Ibrahimov and Mammadov are the latest blatant examples of this government tactic to suppress dissent.”

Bayram Mammadov raising his hand as he leaves the Khatai district court of Baku, May 12, 2016. 

For the past three years, the Azerbaijani government has carried out a pervasive crackdown on dissent, jailing dozens of political activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and other government critics.

Mammadov is a member of NIDA, Azeri for exclamation mark, a youth opposition movement active on social media that is highly critical of the government. Ibrahimov is from another leftist youth group, Solfront. Both are students at Baku Slavic University.

 

Giyas Ibrahimov, sitting in the police car, leaving the Khatai district court of Baku, May 12, 2016. 

In the early hours of May 10, the men sprayed graffiti on a statue of the late Azerbaijani president, Heydar Aliyev, father of President Ilham Aliyev. The inscription said “Happy Slave Day” in Azeri, which was a play on words for “Happy Flower Day.” Azerbaijan has celebrated Flower Day, also Heydar Aliyev’s birthday, every year since 2009. Ibrahimov painted the graffiti while Mammadov took photos and posted them anonymously on social media. Police identified the activists using CCTV cameras.
 

"Happy Slave Day" written in graffiti on statue of former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev. 

Elchin Sadigov, the men’s lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that he was finally able to meet his clients in the Narimanov district police station, where they were being held, shortly before they were taken to a pretrial hearing to be charged. Ibrahimov and Mammadov told him that police demanded that they publicly apologize, on camera, in front of the monument if they wanted to be released.

They alleged that when they refused, the policemen beat them, forced them to take their pants off, and threatened to rape them with truncheons and bottles if they did not confess to drug possession. Following the abuse, they confessed to drug possession before they were allowed to see their lawyer.

They were also forced to clean the toilets and yard of the police station while police filmed them. While at the station trying to get access to Mammadov and Ibrahimov, Sadigov saw police kick and humiliate his clients as they cleaned the station yard. Sadigov tried to intervene to stop the ill-treatment, but police physically pushed him out of the station.

Ibrahimov and Mammadov had visible bruises when Sadigov met them, and said they had pain all over, particularly in their heads and abdomens. Mammadov had a deep bruise and scab from bleeding near his right ear.

Azerbaijani authorities violated Ibrahimov’s and Mammadov’s right of access to a lawyer of their choosing, a right protected under both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, article 14.3) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR, article 6.3 (c)), to which Azerbaijan is a party. Ill-treatment in detention is also unequivocally prohibited by both treaties and under customary international law.

The authorities charged Ibrahimov and Mammadov with illegal purchase or storage of large quantities of drugs with intent to sell under criminal code articles 234.4.1 and 234.4.3. Police claimed that they found drugs on Ibrahimov and Mammadov and also during searches at their homes, which they carried out while the men were in custody.

Sadigov said police did not allow Mammadov’s family members to be present during the search, and that Ibrahimov’s mother saw police plant drugs in her home. In a public statement, the Interior Ministry said police found 2.904 grams of heroin on Mammadov and 1.15 kilograms at his house and that they found 2.607 grams on Ibrahimov, and 1.01 kilograms in his apartment.

At the hearing, Ibrahimov and Mammadov retracted their confessions and told the judge they had painted the graffiti and that the police had beaten them after they refused to apologize at the  monument in front of TV cameras in exchange for their freedom.

The court approved pretrial custody but granted the defense motion requesting an investigation into the ill-treatment allegations.

Azerbaijani authorities should immediately drop the drug charges against Ibrahimov and Mammadov, Human Rights Watch said. If they want to pursue charges for the alleged graffiti they could do so under the relevant provisions of the administrative code.

“This is a glaring case of fabricating criminal drug charges for political reasons,” Gogia said. “The authorities are clearly trying to send a message that if you engage in dissenting political activism you will face the harshest consequences.”