Yalchin Imanov.

© Azadliq Radiosu (RFE/RL)

When a lawyer files a complaint alleging his client was beaten in custody, you would expect it to lead, at best, to justice for the victim, or at worst, to inaction.

In Azerbaijan, that’s sadly not the worst possible outcome. Unless something changes, prominent human rights lawyer Yalchin Imanov is at imminent risk of disbarment for publicizing the beating of his client in custody.

A practicing lawyer and Bar member since 2007, Imanov has defended the rights of many government critics, including award-winning investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, and several imprisoned opposition members.

In early August 2017, after visiting his client, Abbas Huseynov, in Gobustan prison, Imanov gave interviews to media outlets, saying his client was repeatedly beaten and tortured by the prison staff and put in punishment cells under inhumane conditions. The lawyer reported that multiple bruises were visible on Huseynov’s body, and he could hardly sit and had difficulties walking.

A month later, a visiting Council of Europe official, shocked by what he saw at Gobustan prison, called the conditions unacceptable. He also urged authorities to investigate the credible account of Imanov’s client’s torture.

Imanov filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office, the ombudsman, and a Baku district court in August. The authorities all rejected the allegations as groundless and refused to investigate.

On the same day Imanov filed the complaints, the deputy chief of the Justice Ministry’s penitentiary service filed a complaint with the Bar Association, accusing Imanov of spreading false information and requesting disciplinary measures against him. In response, on November 20, the Bar Association suspended Imanov’s Bar membership and referred his case to a court with a view to his disbarment. Effective immediately, Imanov cannot represent his clients in court.

The consequences for victims who file complaints can be severe. In March, a Baku court sentenced popular journalist and blogger Mehman Huseynov, (not related to Abbas Huseynov) to two years in prison for defaming a district police office, after Huseynov dared to go public about the abuses he’d suffered in their custody.

The Azerbaijani government has a binding obligation to investigate allegations of abuse and ensure that lawyers and journalists can work without intimidation, hindrance, or harassment. The authorities should reinstate Imanov’s Bar membership and release Mehman Huseynov as well as vacate his conviction, allowing both to work without undue government interference.