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Opposition Leader Convicted in Azerbaijan

Authorities Should Release Tofig Yagublu, Quash His Conviction

Tofig Yagublu holds a sign calling for freedom at an unsanctioned opposition protest, November 3, 2017.  © 2017 Aziz Karimov

In another mockery of justice, a court in Azerbaijan today convicted Tofig Yagublu, one of Azerbaijan’s few alternative political voices, on spurious “hooliganism” charges and sentenced him to four years and three months in prison. The verdict did not come as a surprise, but it shows the extent Azerbaijani authorities are willing to go to subvert the rule of law to retaliate against government critics.

Yagublu, 59, 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 has often criticized Azerbaijan’s human rights problems.

It’s not the first time authorities have imprisoned Yagublu on politically motivated charges. He spent three years behind bars on false incitement charges, and following his release in 2016, he was arrested again in October 2019 after participating in an unsanctioned rally.

On March 22, days after President Ilham Aliyev implied he would use the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic to crack down on the country’s political opposition, police arrested Yagublu, claiming he had attacked a motorist. Yagublu vehemently denied the allegation, saying he was sitting in his parked car when another vehicle sideswiped his car. The driver and a passenger got out and tried to attack him. Realizing the accident was a set-up, Yagublu immediately called the police, and remained in his car until they arrived. Nonetheless, authorities arrested and charged him with “hooliganism” following the incident.

The authorities rushed Yagublu’s trial, denying nearly all the defense’s petitions, including a request to retrieve and introduce CCTV footage that would have supported Yagublu’s story.

Yagublu’s conviction is the latest in the government’s relentless campaign to imprison its critics. Over the past several months, authorities have arrested, detained, and harassed dozens of rank-and-file members and senior opposition politicians.

Yagublu has protested his wrongful imprisonment and said he will hunger strike.

The Council of Europe and the United States have called on Azerbaijan to release Yagublu. Azerbaijan’s other partners that have not yet spoken up should follow suit, including the European Union (EU), which is negotiating a closer partnership with Baku. The EU should make clear that Azerbaijan’s continued crackdown is at serious odds with their partnership and should call for the release of those unjustly imprisoned, including Yagublu.

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