Ilgar Mammadov detained during a protest rally in Baku, 2013.

© 2013 Turkhan Kerimov (RFE/RL)

It’s unfathomable that Ilgar Mammadov, a prominent political analyst and one of Azerbaijan’s few alternative political voices, has been in prison for five years now. Ilgar was arrested shortly after he announced plans to challenge President Ilham Aliyev in the October 2013 presidential election. I have known Ilgar for nearly 15 years, and it’s hard to imagine a more law-abiding and peaceful person. Yet, the authorities convicted him of inciting violence and sentenced him to seven years in prison, following a flawed trial.

In two separate judgements, the European Court of Human Rights found Mammadov’s detention illegal, that the case against him was in retaliation for his criticism of the authorities, and his conviction a violation of fair trial norms. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has called for Mammadov’s immediate release at least a dozen times. In addition, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe initiated a rare inquiry into Mammadov’s continued detention, and in an unprecedented move, the Committee of Ministers decided to trigger legal proceedings against Azerbaijan, referring the case back to the court.

Yet, Azerbaijan has defied the court, heaped scorn on the Council of Europe and its Secretary General, and kept Mammadov in jail, trying to break his spirit. He’s not alone. In a vicious crackdown against critics, Azerbaijani authorities have jailed dozens of human rights defenders, political activists, and journalists. The government adopted a range of draconian laws and regulations, impeding independent groups’ work and their ability to secure funding.

Mammadov’s continued imprisonment is wrong on so many levels. His daughter, Aysel, was 10 when Ilgar was arrested. She has spent a third of her life waiting for her father, seeing him only once or twice a month.

One thing is clear: there should be a “price tag” for Azerbaijan’s blatant refusal to implement a binding judgement of the European Court, and for the unrelenting crackdown on government critics. “Business as usual” for Azerbaijan’s international partners is no longer an option. While Mammadov languishes in prison and many European Union member states pushed for legal proceedings against Azerbaijan in the Council of Europe, Brussels is currently negotiating a closer partnership with Baku. What it should be doing is making clear that continued disregard for the European Court will have serious consequences. At bare minimum, the EU should freeze any further steps on the negotiations until Mammadov is at home with his family.