The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has just ruled that the arrest and prosecution on drugs charges of two prominent youth activists in Azerbaijan was politically motivated. The court held that the real purpose for Bayram Mammadov and Giyas Ibrahimov’s arbitrary arrest, detention, and prosecution was that they “had painted political graffiti on the statue of a former president.”
Police had detained Mammadov and Ibrahimov in May 2016 after they sprayed graffiti on the statue of Azerbaijan’s late president Heydar Aliyev, the father of current President Ilham Aliyev. The graffiti said: “Happy Slave Day” in Azeri, a play on words for “Happy Flower Day.” Both young men were students and members of NIDA, Azeri for exclamation mark, a youth opposition movement active on social media that is highly critical of the government.
After their arrest, the Court found, the pair were ill-treated in custody and forced to confess to bogus drugs charges. Authorities then demanded they publicly apologize in front of the monument, which they refused to do, and shortly afterwards were charged with serious drugs offences. Later, they were each sentenced to 10 years in prison. Although the activists confessed to the charges under police duress, the authorities failed to effectively investigate the torture allegations. While domestic courts rejected all their appeals, they were eventually pardoned and released in March 2019.
The Court also held that their prosecution was “part of a pattern it had found in previous cases [in Azerbaijan] of the arbitrary arrest and detention of government critics, civil society activists, and human rights defenders through retaliatory prosecutions and misuse of the criminal law.”
The use of criminal prosecution as a tool for political retaliation is a well-documented problem in Azerbaijan. Last month, one of Europe’s foremost human rights bodies, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, adopted a groundbreaking resolution on political prisoners in Azerbaijan, highlighting the “systemic nature” of the problem, and urging the authorities to release all those unjustly imprisoned.
The European Court has now ordered Azerbaijan to pay Mammadov and Ibrahimov compensation of 30,000 euros each, and 6,000 euros each for costs and expenses. But Azerbaijan should go further, release all of the country’s wrongfully imprisoned activists, and ensure that no one is prosecuted for exercising their fundamental rights to free expression and assembly.