(Berlin) – The Azerbaijan authorities should release 18 people, including a prominent religious scholar and a leading political opposition activist, who were wrongly convicted and sentenced to long prison sentences on January 25, 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. Seventeen of the men alleged that police severely ill-treated them in detention to coerce confessions and testimony against others. The authorities targeted the political activist for criticizing government policies on Facebook.

“The Azerbaijan authorities completely failed to take seriously or properly investigate the serious allegations of torture and convicted 17 people based on evidence tainted by these allegations,” said Jane Buchanan, acting deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Convictions based on torture-tainted evidence violate basic rights guarantees and cannot be allowed to stand. The authorities should act in line with their international obligations, quash the convictions, and release those detained.”

Most of the men were arrested on November 26, 2015, during a raid in Nardaran, a Baku suburb known for its Shia religious conservatism and criticism of government policies. The raid turned violent under unclear and disputed circumstances, with shootings leaving two police and seven civilians dead. Among those convicted is Taleh Bagirov, a religious scholar, imam, and leader of the Muslim Unity public movement.

Taleh Bagirov.

The men’s lawyers alleged that officials from the Interior Ministry’s Organized Crime Unit beat, threatened, and used electric shocks on Bagirov and 16 others detained with him. The men reported that dozens of policemen beat them with automatic rifle butts and truncheons and stomped on them while detaining them in a police van on the way to the organized crime unit headquarters. The men also stated that once they arrived, the police placed sacks on their heads, handcuffed them, and beat them with truncheons, especially on the genitals and the bottoms of their feet. Most of the men also said that the police used electric shocks on various parts of their bodies, including their genitals. Some also said that police threatened to rape the men’s wives or sisters.

The police apparently sought to compel the men to confess to crimes and to give testimony against others. Bagirov said that the police sought testimony against the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (APFP) leader and another opposition leader, apparently to show a connection between the Nardaran events and the political opposition.

Many of the men were injured. Bagirov’s nose was broken. Shortly after their arrest, they underwent a medical checkup in the detention facility. The men’s lawyers said that doctors documented wounds consistent with beatings or other violence on most of the men, but the authorities did not open an investigation at that time. The men did not receive medical treatment.

Interior Ministry officials did not grant Bagirov access to his lawyer until more than a month later. At that time, Bagirov filed a complaint regarding the ill-treatment, but withdrew it out of fear of retaliation, his lawyer said. None of the other men had lawyers of their choosing for nearly eight months, until preliminary hearings started in July 2016.

During the July preliminary hearings, Bagirov and the others described the police’s ill-treatment. In August, the prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into the allegations, but it was not thorough. The prosecutor’s office ordered forensic medical exams of the men, but the men’s lawyers said that the exams were superficial and too late to document a number of the wounds. Investigators did not thoroughly consider the documentation of wounds from earlier medical checkups or consider the men’s testimony.

The authorities closed the investigation in late September for alleged lack of evidence.

Bagirov was sentenced to 20 years in prison on numerous charges including terrorism, an attempt to seize power violently, illegal firearms possession, and homicide. The 16 others were sentenced to between 10 and 20 years in prison on various charges including murder, terrorism, inciting religious hatred, organizing mass unrest, and illegal possession of weapons.

Azerbaijan is a party to multiple human rights treaties, including the UN Convention against Torture and the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibit in absolute terms torture and other forms of ill-treatment of detainees. Azerbaijan’s obligations include the prompt and effective investigation into all allegations of ill-treatment, provision of an effective remedy including compensation to victims, and the exclusion of any statements believed to have been taken under torture from use as evidence in any proceedings, except as proof of misconduct against the alleged torturer.

 

Fuad Gahramanli.

The court also sentenced Fuad Gahramanli, a prominent activist and deputy chairman of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (APFP), to 10 years in prison for criticizing the government on Facebook, including police actions during the events in Nardaran. He was convicted of inciting the public to disobey the government (sedition), making appeals against the government, and incitement of national, racial, social, or religious hostility.

Gahramanli’s online criticism of the government was protected free speech that falls squarely within political speech that the European Court of Human Rights recognizes as a cornerstone of a democratic society. His conviction and 10-year sentence for exercise of that speech violates Azerbaijan’s international human rights obligations, including under article 10 (free speech) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Court has previously ordered Azerbaijan, in the case of the unlawful conviction of journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, to end violations of free speech arising from inappropriate convictions, by securing the victim’s immediate release.

The Azerbaijan government should immediately ensure Gahramanli’s conviction is quashed and that he is released, Human Rights Watch said.

In December 2015, the prosecutor’s office invited Gahramanli in for questioning as a witness in the investigation into Bagirov and others involved in the events in Nardaran the previous month. When he refused to go without an official summons, police forcibly took him for an interrogation. After several hours of questioning, a court ordered him held in pretrial detention.

The authorities have brought administrative and criminal charges against dozens of other APFP activists in recent years, apparently in retaliation for their criticism of the government. At least 11 APFP members are currently in pretrial detention or serving prison sentences. Authorities also arrested at least 20 other APFP members in 2016, all of whom were sentenced to administrative detention of up to 30 days.

Gahramanli actively participated in the coalition of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a prominent international coalition that brings together governments, companies, and nongovernmental groups to promote better governance in how oil, gas, and mining revenues are used. Before his arrest, Gahramanli was one of 10 members of the Coalition Council governing the EITI Azerbaijan civil society coalition. In April 2015, EITI downgraded Azerbaijan’s status in the initiative for the government’s failure to comply with EITI requirements for unhindered civil society participation. Azerbaijan remains under EITI review.

The authorities had previously targeted Bagirov and Gahramanli in politically motivated cases. Police arrested Bagirov in March 2013, one week after he gave a sermon in a mosque sharply criticizing the government. He was sentenced to two years in prison on spurious drug charges and released in 2015. Authorities arrested Gahramanli in April 2011, when he participated in anti-government demonstrations. He received a two-year suspended sentence, for allegedly organizing and participating in public disorder.

“The authorities should ensure Fuad Gahramanli’s conviction for free speech does not stand and release him,” Buchanan said. “His Facebook posts were sharp and maybe unpleasant for many in the government to read, but to use them to imprison him, is an abuse of human rights and the rule of law and serves to deter others from speaking out by showing the price they can pay for social media activism.”