The year has just started, and courts in Azerbaijan have already convicted two outspoken government critics on politically-motivated criminal charges. On Tuesday, a regional court sentenced Gozel Bayramli, deputy chair of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (APFP) to three years in prison. Earlier in January, another court sentenced Afgan Mukhtarli, a journalist and political activist, to six years.
Both Bayramli and Mukhtarli were arrested in May 2017 at different border crossing points with neighboring Georgia. Bayramli was returning home from medical treatment with her friend. According to her lawyer, border police claimed something was wrong with her passport, saying she had to accompany them to the chief’s room. As Bayramli was taken through a dark hall, an officer offered help with her two bags, but instead of taking the bags, she felt him drop something into one. Immediately afterwards, an officer insisted her bags be inspected. As they went through the security scanner, a customs official “discovered” a pack of money in one. Without counting it, the officer said she had US$12,000 – or US$2,000 over the maximum allowed – undeclared.
Authorities charged Bayramli with smuggling. Bayramli told the court the money was planted, and if she wanted to bring in such an amount, she could have split the US$12,000 with her friend to stay under the limit. The court refused to seek further corroboration of the police claims to have found the money such as review CCTV footage from the check point or conduct any forensic tests.
Mukhtarli fled to Georgia with his family in 2015 to escape Azerbaijan’s crackdown on critics. While in exile, he reported on Azerbaijani government corruption. On May 29, a group of unidentified men abducted him in Tbilisi, Georgia. Less than 24 hours later, he reappeared in Azerbaijani border police custody, while his passport remained in Tbilisi. According to his lawyer, security officials had taken him to an unstaffed border area and photographed him to make it look as though he were trying to cross. The authorities also “discovered” €10,000 (US$11,200) on Mukhtarli and charged him with illegal border crossing, smuggling, and resisting police. Again, a local court refused to seek any corrorboration of the police claims to have found the money on him. It convicted him following an unfair trial in which his due process rights were violated.
At least 10 other APFP members and at least 11 journalists are wrongfully behind bars.
Azerbaijan authorities should free Bayramli and Mukhtarli and allow them to do their legitimate work without undue interference. Baku’s international partners should also insist on their release and an end to the crackdown.