Friday marks two months since Tofiq Yagublu, one of Azerbaijan’s top political opposition figures, was thrown behind bars for his activism.
Police arrested Yagublu on March 22, three days after President Ilham Aliyev, in his first major speech addressing the Covid-19 pandemic, implied he would use the fight against the virus to crack down on the country’s political opposition.
The authorities wasted no time finding a pretext to jail Yagublu, arresting him on bogus “hooliganism” charges. As governments around the world are urged to decrease the population of people in detention by using alternatives to pretrial custody, thereby reducing the risk of spreading Covid-19, Azerbaijani authorities in Baku have kept Yagublu in Pretrial Facility No. 3, also known as Shuvelan, a facility notorious for severe overcrowding and dirty cells, and for being poorly lit and ventilated. Conditions in Shuvelan are so poor, the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) had called for its shuttering three years before the pandemic.
There are now at least 33 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in one prison in Azerbaijan. Although no cases have been reported in Shuvelan, it is clear Yagublu shouldn’t be there, or in any prison for that matter.
Baku’s appeal court has denied several motions by Yagublu’s lawyers to release him. Meanwhile, they told Human Rights Watch that authorities have no active investigation into his case. Police have not questioned him or other defense witnesses.
Yagublu has underlying health conditions that could put him at higher risk of serious illness should he contract Covid-19. According to his family, he has chronic asthma and was receiving routine medical treatment before his arrest. He had surgery in February and was scheduled for further treatment, partially to address consequences of a severe police beating last year. Azerbaijani authorities have periodically arrested Yagublu in the past, subjected him to ill-treatment, and warned him to stop his political activism and criticism of the government.
Azerbaijan’s government should heed these calls, free Yagublu, and end political retaliation against him and other critics, especially during the pandemic.