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(Berlin) – Azerbaijani authorities re-arrested a youth activist two weeks after he was pardoned for a bogus drug conviction and freed, Human Rights Watch said today.

The activist, Bayram Mammadov, is a member of NIDA (Azeri for “Exclamation Mark”), a youth opposition movement that typically is highly critical of the government. He had been serving the10-year sentence since May 2016 on bogus drug possession charges after spraying satirical graffiti on the monument of a former president. He was released on March 16, 2019 under a presidential pardon. A day before he was rearrested, Mammadov gave an interview to a local online media outlet criticizing the authorities.

“Bayram Mammadov’s re-arrest is yet another example of the Azerbaijani government’s intolerance to criticism and contempt for free speech,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Azerbaijani authorities should immediately free him and ensure accountability for his detention including any ill-treatment.”

Policemen bringing youth activist Bayram Mammadov to the Appeal Court in Baku, Azerbaijan. April 2, 2019. © 2019 Mehman Huseynov

Mammadov was arrested and sentenced to 30-days detention on spurious disobedience charges on March 30. The decision was upheld upon appeal on April 2. Mammadov said at the appeal hearing that he had suffered ill-treatment in police custody. Bruising was visible on his face. The authorities should immediately free Mammadov, ensure the investigation into his allegations of ill-treatment is effective, and hold the responsible officials to account.

On March 30, around 2 p.m., a Sabunchu district police officer visited Mammadov’s house in the capital, Baku, telling him that the police chief wanted to talk to him and that he should go to a local precinct. The same officer had visited him on March 18 and 29 and taken him to a local precinct for post-release registration purposes. The police officer drove Mammadov and his father to Sabunchu police precinct No.12.

Mammadov’s father told Human Rights Watch that they waited there for several hours, but the police chief never spoke with them, citing his busy schedule. Eventually, three police officers told Mammadov to accompany them to the district’s main police precinct and told his father that he could follow in a separate car. However, when Bayram’s father arrived at the police station, around 6 p.m., police said that his son was not there and that they would not tell him his son’s whereabouts.

Later that evening, Mammadov was allowed to make a brief phone call to his father. Mammadov said he had been sentenced to 30-days detention and that he was in Baku’s Binagadi Temporary Detention Isolator, which is a facility under the Ministry of Interior. He had not seen a lawyer while in detention nor did he have one of his choosing at the hearing for his sentencing.

Trials for administrative or misdemeanor offenses, as in this case, are perfunctory in Azerbaijan, rarely last longer than a few minutes, and police testimony is often the sole evidence, Human Rights Watch said.

On April 1, Mammadov’s family retained a lawyer, Elchin Sadigov, who tried to visit Mammadov in detention at about 11 a.m. Sadigov told Human Rights Watch that officials refused to grant him access, saying that the facility’s meeting room was being disinfected. They said he could meet with his client two days later.

Human Rights Watch reviewed the administrative court decision and the protocol on administrative violation obtained by the lawyer. The court sentenced Mammadov to 30-days detention for disobeying police orders under Article 535.1 of the Administrative Code. The decision says that Mammadov used inappropriate language about the police officers, made loud noises in the precinct, and disobeyed police instructions.

Mammadov’s father, who was with him at the precinct, flatly denies that any such incidents took place.

The lawyer was able to see him on April 2 during the appeal hearing. Mammadov told the court that he had been physically abused, pointing to two officers who accompanied him to the trial as those responsible. He told his lawyer that he had been handcuffed, with his legs also tied, and had spent almost 24 hours lying on the floor in a cell, facing the ground. He said he was repeatedly slapped on his face and kicked. The lawyer and Mammadov’s friends who also attended the appeal hearing said he had bruises on his nose, ears, and forehead.

The appeal court upheld the detention but ordered a review of Mammadov’s ill-treatment claims.

Azerbaijan is a party to multiple human rights treaties, including the United Nations Convention against Torture and the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibit torture and other forms of ill-treatment of detainees in absolute terms, and require the authorities to ensure multiple safeguards against arbitrary detention. Azerbaijan’s obligations include ensuring the right to a lawyer from the moment of detention, prompt and effective investigation into all allegations of ill-treatment, and provision of an effective remedy.

For years, Azerbaijani authorities have waged a vicious crackdown on critics and dissenting voices, detaining dozens of journalists and civic and religious activists on politically motivated charges. On March 16, the president signed a decree pardoning several hundred prisoners, including 51 people whom local human rights defenders considered political prisoners, including Mammadov.

“Mammadov’s new detention following his criticism in a media interview casts a shadow over the release of political prisoners in Azerbaijan,” Gogia said. “The authorities should move quickly to release him and ensure that the pardon was a genuine move to improve human rights in Azerbaijan.” 

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