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Policemen bringing the opposition leader Tofig Yagublu to Nizami District Court of Baku, March 23, 2020. © 2020 Azadliq Radiosu/RFERL

(Berlin) – Azerbaijani authorities have arrested a prominent opposition leader and ardent government critic, Tofig Yagublu, on spurious hooliganism charges, Human Rights Watch said today. Yagublu’s arrest comes days after President Ilham Aliyev made comments suggesting he would use measures supposedly designed to tackle the coronavirus pandemic to crackdown on opposition, another disturbing example of the government’s contempt for free speech and political critics.

“The Azerbaijani government has a longstanding pattern of pursuing trumped-up charges against government critics in order to silence them,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The case against Yagublu falls squarely in that pattern.”

Yagublu, a former political prisoner, is a member of the opposition Musavat Party, and a senior politician in the National Council of Democratic Forces, a coalition of opposition parties and activists in Azerbaijan. A former journalist, Yagublu often raises human rights concerns in Azerbaijan.

Yagublu’s arrest comes days after Aliyev addressed the nation about the challenges posed by coronavirus. In his speech, Aliyev called the opposition traitors, enemies, and a fifth column that might try to destabilize the country. He strongly implied that he would use the fight against the virus to crack down on the country’s political opposition.

On March 23, the Nizami District Court of Baku ordered Yagublu be held for three months in pretrial custody, pending investigation on charges of “hooliganism committed with a weapon or an object used as a weapon.”

According to the Interior Ministry’s press statement, Yagublu is also accused of inflicting bodily harm, using a wrench. If convicted, he could face up to seven years in prison.

Yagublu vehemently denies the charges. At the pretrial detention hearing, he said that on March 22, at about 3:30 p.m., he was sitting in his parked car when another vehicle approached from behind and side-swiped his car. The driver and a passenger from the other car got out and tried to attack him. Yagublu’s daughter told Human Rights Watch that her father realized the accident was a set-up, immediately called the police, and remained in his car waiting for them to arrive.

After filing the police report, police officers took Yagublu into custody and charged him with criminal hooliganism. The car accident appears to have been staged to provide grounds for a bogus case against Yagublu, Human Rights Watch said.

Police denied Yagublu access to a lawyer of his choosing and he was only allowed to see one at his pretrial hearing the next day. Yagublu rejected the services of a state-appointed lawyer and refused to speak to police before the court hearing.

The prosecutor requested that the court remand Yagublu to pretrial custody, claiming he would interfere with the investigation and pressure the alleged victims, without producing any information to substantiate this claim.

The court’s decision to accept such abstract and unsubstantiated reasons for Yagublu’s pretrial detention violates the guarantee against arbitrary detention in the European Convention of Human Rights. By contrast, courts are required to ensure that detention is a measure of the last resort, justified by specific facts and personal circumstances relevant to the accused.

The authorities placed Yagublu in Pretrial Detention Facility No.3 in Shuvelan, which is notorious for its cells being severely overcrowded, dilapidated, dirty, and poorly lit and ventilated. In 2017, following a visit to the country, the Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), the Council of Europe’s torture prevention body, recommended closing the facility “as soon as possible.”

Placing Yagubly in Shuvelan pretrial facility also goes against the CPT’s recent announcement, made in the context of the coronavirus disease, urging all relevant authorities to make concerted efforts “to resort to alternatives to deprivation of liberty,” particularly in cases of overcrowding.

This is not Yagublu’s first arrest. Azerbaijani authorities have periodically arrested Yagublu, subjected him to ill-treatment, and warned him to stop his political activism and criticism against the government.

In October 2019, Yagublu was arrested and sentenced to one month in prison when police violently broke up an unsanctioned, peaceful protest in central Baku. Yagublu alleged that three or four policemen beat him repeatedly and ordered him to make a public statement “repenting” his actions and pledging to stop his political activity. No effective investigations followed the ill-treatment allegations.

In March 2014, Yagublu, was sentenced to five years in prison, on bogus charges of instigating violence. In November 2015, the European Court found Yagublu’s detention illegal and ordered Azerbaijan to pay hefty compensation for non-pecuniary damage. He was released in March 2016, following a presidential pardon.

Azerbaijan has a long record of persecuting its political opposition and government critics on a range of spurious criminal and misdemeanor charges, including hooliganism. Currently, there are at least eight members of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party in prison on bogus charges, and they include: Orkhan Bakhishli, Saleh Rustamov, Agil Maharramov, Babek Hasanov, Fuad Ahmadli, Elchin Ismayilli, Ziya Asadli, and Pasha Umudov.

“Instead of providing essential information and addressing public concerns on COVID-19, the government is shamefully trying to usurp this pandemic to continue its relentless crackdown against its critics,” Gogia said. “Authorities should immediately free Yagublu, end the crackdown on political opposition, focus on protecting the health of all in Azerbaijan, and allow the media to do their job freely and safely.”

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