Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Another Azeri NGO Leader Out of Circulation
Hasan Huseynli, head of the Good Citizen NGO in the Azerbaijani city of Ganja. (Photo courtesy of H. Huseynli)
An assault case brought against Hasan Huseynli, an educationalist and NGO leader in western Azerbaijan, highlights the particular problems facing activist groups outside the capital Baku.
Huseynli, who heads a group called Good Citizen in the city of Ganja, about 360 kilometres from Baku, was detained on March 30 and charged with stabbing a man.
The Good Citizen group is not concerned with matters seen as overtly “political” like human rights; it mainly works on educational issues and arranging study abroad for Azerbaijanis.
Farid Zulfugarli, an activist from Good Citizen, said the charges were nonsense.
“Hasan Huseynli is one of the leading educators in the country. He’s a physicist; he defended his dissertation in Moscow, continued his education in the United States, and has worked at several universities in Ganja,” Zulfugarli told IWPR. “He later founded his NGO and continued his educational work there.”
Zulfugarli added, “I’d be interested to find out when educating people became a crime.”
Huseynli’s son Azer said the allegation went beyond the usual methods used to frame people in Azerbaijan.
“We know how people are arrested normally - drugs are planted on them and they get charged with possession,” he said. “But charging someone with using a knife is going too far. My father is an intellectual, the whole city knows him. How could he be carrying a knife in his pocket?”
Fizuli Shikhiyev, an investigator with the Ganja police, declined to give IWPR any information about the case on the grounds that the investigation was ongoing.
A spokesman for Ganja’s municipal government did, however, speak to IWPR, insisting the case was not politically motivated and had not been ordered by officials.
Sevinj Sersan, head of Transparency Azerbaijan’s office in Ganja, disputed this, saying the assault charge was just the latest case of official harassment of Huseynli.
“They’ve constantly put pressure on Hasan Huseynli. For some reason, a month ago the local authorities took away the building he was renting as office space. He has been called in repeatedly by the police and given warnings,” Sersan said. “But Huseynli never attached much significance to this, and just carried on with his work. As a result, they have arrested him in order to force him to shut up.”
More than 50 NGOs as well as diplomats from the United States and Europe called on local officials to release Huseynli. As a result of this high-level scrutiny – unusual for officials in a place like Ganja – he was allowed out on bail after two days in custody.
Huseynli told reporters how just before the incident happened, he suspected something was up.
“A man I didn’t know stopped me and asked why I’d on his foot. Then a woman nearby shouted ‘Why are you hitting him?’ and started coming towards me,” he recalled. “I realised this was an act of provocation and hurried to the post office where I rang a [Radio Liberty] journalist and explained my suspicions.
“At the police station, I learned that the man was called Arzu Gahramanov. He claimed I knocked him to the ground and stabbed him with a knife,” Huseynli told IWPR.
Lawyer Alaif Hasanov said Huseynli could be sentenced to between three and seven years in prison if convicted.
“Political trials go on all over the country. Incidents of this kind occur frequently in political arrests – there were identical ones in the case of Azadlyq newspaper editor Ganimat Zahid, and Yadigar Sadiqov, Musavat party head in Lenkoran,” Hasanov told IWPR. “As lawyers, we see numerous breaches of the law at trial, and there’s no doubt that in the case of Huseynli, the arrest was ordered for political reasons.”
Asaf Mammadov, the Ganja representative of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Study Centre –its head too is under arrest – speaks of a worrying clampdown on NGO activists in regions outside Baku.
“NGOs have met with difficulties in the past too. The situation in the regions has always been difficult. But now there are these amendments to the NGO law on the one hand, and more arrests on the other, which suggest that the situation is getting worse,” he said. “If this continues, it won’t be possible for NGOs to go on operating in the provinces.”
After been forced out of its offices last month, Huseynli’s Good Citizen organisation moved into new premises on April 1, but has already been asked to leave by its new landlord.
“We had moved in less than two weeks earlier, and the building’s owner asked us to leave, saying he was selling it. This has created new problems for us,” Huseynli said. “We’re in a very tough situation.”
Tahmina Tagizade is editor of Meydan TV in Azerbaijan.
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