Today, the Azerbaijani government has another chance to free a wrongfully imprisoned political activist and thereby halt a process that could potentially lead to its expulsion from Europe’s top human rights body, the Council of Europe.
The activist is Ilgar Mammadov. In early 2013, when he was planning a long-shot run for Azerbaijan’s presidency, he and another political activist, Tofig Yagublu, went to the Azerbaijani city of Ismayilli, where demonstrations and riots had broken out to protest local corruption. The pair spent less than an hour there to gather information about the events. Soon the authorities, looking for scapegoats for the protests, prosecuted Mammadov and Yagublu for allegedly instigating the riots. The charges were baseless and the trial was grossly unfair, but they were nevertheless convicted.
Yagublu was released by presidential pardon in 2016, but Mammadov has been in prison since his arrest nearly five years ago.
Since his arrest, Mammadov brought several cases to the European Court of Human Rights. Today the court ruled that Mammadov’s right to a fair trial had been violated due to “serious shortcomings in the manner in which the evidence used to convict [him] had been admitted, examined and/or assessed.”
This is the second European Court judgement on Mammadov’s predicament. In 2014, in case No. 1, the court ruled that Mammadov’s pretrial detention was unlawful and aimed at “silenc[ing] and punish[ing] him for criticizing the government.” The Council’s Committee of Ministers issued more than a dozen resolutions requiring the Azerbaijani government to release Mammadov, and when Azerbaijan refused to do so, the council’s Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland, launched a rare inquiry into this failure.
The government pledged to reform pre-trial detention practices, but remained utterly defiant on Mammadov’s unlawful detention.
Responding to this defiance, in October 2017 the Committee of Ministers voted to trigger legal proceedings against Azerbaijan. This means, if Mammadov is not released, the European Court will be asked to further deliberate on his detention and its judgement in case no.1, and ultimately could result in a challenge to Azerbaijan’s membership of the Council of Europe.
President Aliyev has indirectly threatened to withdraw Azerbaijan from the Council of Europe, and has predictably tried to blame the current crisis on Jagland, when of course it is the government’s obstinance that has got us to where we are today.
The new court ruling is a new leaf, a new reason for Azerbaijan’s government to do the right thing, and to free Mammadov. It should not miss this chance.