Today, an Azerbaijani court handed down a ten-year prison sentence to a 22-year-old activist, who is part of a pro-democracy youth group. Giyas Ibrahimov was detained for spraying graffiti on a statue of a former president. However, he was convicted on serious drugs charges. He had confessed to those charges after police had tortured him to do so – just another example of how Azerbaijan fabricates charges against youth activists to intimidate them and deter others.

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

Police detained Ibrahimov together with 21-year-old Bayram Mammadov last May. They had both been identified on CCTV footage as having painted graffiti on a statue of former president Heydar Aliyev, father of the current president. The graffiti said: “Happy Slave Day” in Azeri, a play on words for “Happy Flower Day.” Azerbaijan has celebrated Flower Day, also Heydar Aliyev’s birthday, since 2009. Both men are students and members of NIDA, Azeri for exclamation mark, a youth opposition movement active on social media that is highly critical of the government.

Police at Baku’s Narimanov district police station ordered Ibrahimov and Mammadov to publicly apologize, on camera, in front of the monument, in exchange for their release. When they refused, police beat them, forced them to take their pants off, and threatened to rape them with truncheons and bottles. Under duress, the men signed confessions to drug possession. When their lawyer was finally able to meet them two days later, he saw visible bruises on both men, who also complained of pain all over their bodies.

At the remand hearing, both activists retracted their forced confessions and complained of abuse and ill-treatment by law enforcement officers. The authorities failed to investigate the allegations of abuse, and instead charged them with drug-related crimes.

Mammadov ’s trial is still pending.

Ibrahimov’s conviction fits squarely into a well-established pattern of Azerbaijan’s authorities using false, politically motivated criminal charges to jail political and youth activists. Human Rights Watch documented at least 20 cases of similar arrests and convictions in 2016 alone. The authorities should release Ibrahimov immediately and unconditionally, and stop using false charges to lock up critics.