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Arrests, Not Amnesty in Azerbaijan

Instead of freeing prisoners as usual on a national holiday, the authorities continue putting their opponents behind bars.
By Afgan Mukhtarli
  • Murad Adilov (Photo: N. Adilov)
    Murad Adilov (Photo: N. Adilov)
  • Natiq Adilov. (Photo: N. Adilov)
    Natiq Adilov. (Photo: N. Adilov)

The day Azerbaijan was founded in 1918 is normally marked by a prisoner amnesty, and this year, human rights defenders, journalists and opposition members were hoping some of their jailed friends and colleagues would walk free.

But Republic Day on May 28, came and went with no amnesty decree from President Ilham Aliyev. Instead, the arrests continued.

“Signing an amnesty decree for Republic Day really could have had a positive impact on Ilham Aliyev’s reputation,” Azer Ismayil, adviser to the head of the opposition Musavat party. “The accelerating number of arrests, the bans imposed on ordinary people ahead of the European Games, and the tragic apartment-block fire have exhausted the patience of even loyal citizens. Under the circumstances, an amnesty could have eased tensions, but the authorities did not take up the opportunity.”

Azerbaijan is hosting the first ever European Games starting on June 12, and has spent large sums of money on refurbishing Baku and other cities, while continuing to detain its critics without regard for the negative publicity.

Earlier in the month, on May 14, a member of the opposition Popular Front Party, Murad Adilov, was given a six-year-prison sentence after being convicted of illegal narcotics possession. In closing remarks in the courtroom in the southern town of Lenkoran, he denied the charges and said the conviction was intended to discredit both him and his brother Natiq, who is the Popular Front’s chief spokesman and also anchors Azerbaijan Hour, a programme broadcast on Turkish TV.

“They want to silence my brother Natiq Adilov. They told me that unofficially more than once after they arrested me,” he said. “The central departments for countering narcotics and organised crime have turned into department for countering free-thinking people.”

Drugs charges are now commonly used to damage the reputation of dissidents. Other allegations used against opposition members, human rights defenders and independent journalists include assault, affray, tax evasion and fraud – anything except the outspoken criticism that enrages the authorities. In May, Faraj Karimov, a social media activist and leading member of the Musavat party, was given a six-and-a half year sentence, and his brother Siraj – also a Musavat member – got a six-year term in March, both of them for drugs possession. (See No Let-Up to Repression in Azerbaijan.) The trial of another Popular Front member, Elvin Abdullaev, began this week with prosecutors demanding a seven-year sentence for a drugs offence, and the defence alleging major flaws in the arrest and investigation.

Natiq Adilov, who is currently a political refugee in France, said the defence showed the court evidence discrediting one of the prosecution witnesses, but that “when there are political instructions, evidence counts for nothing”.

“Murad’s arrest isn’t about repressing one individual, it’s just one more step designed to intimidate independent-minded people,” he added.

A leading member of the NIDA youth movement, Rahman Mammadli, added that the Adilov case showed how people were being prosecuted as a proxy for family members.

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International has declared Murad Adilov a prisoner of conscience and is calling for his immediate release.

Seven Musavat members began a hunger-strike in support of political prisoners on May 12.

Deputy party leader Elman Fattah reminded IWPR that three of his fellow-deputies were currently in jail.

Tofiq Yaqublu , Yadigar Sadiqov and Faraj Karimli, plus party activist Siraj Karimli, were arrested on false charges. All in all, over 100 people are detained for their political views in Azerbaijan,” he said.

On May 15, Ilgar Mammadov, head of the REAL opposition movement, was placed in a week’s solitary confinement for reasons that prison authorities would not reveal, according to his lawyer Fuad Agayev. In March 2014, Mammadov and Tofiq Yaqublu were sentenced to seven and five years’ imprisonment, respectively, for “organising mass riots” and using “violence against police officers”. The case referred to unrest in the town of Ismayilli in January 2013; neither man was there at the time.

Oqtay Gulaliyev of the campaign group Azerbaijan Without Political Prisoners says this kind of additional punishment is deliberate.

“Ilgar Mammadov has been placed in solitary confinement more than once. Khadija Ismail, Leyla Yunus, Ilkin Rustamzade and others have also been put in solitary confinement more than once, for no reason,” he said. “Taleh Khasmammadov  has been tortured. Instead of putting a stop to this lawlessness, the authorities justify it and cover up the torture.”

Top investigative journalist Khadija Ismayil remains in custody five months after her arrest.  International rights groups marked her birthday on May 27 with renewed calls for her release. Prosecutors have brought new charges of embezzlement and tax evasion against her after apparently failing to stand up an original allegation of “pressuring someone to commit suicide”. 

Ismayil and those who follow her work are certain that she has been locked up in retribution for investigating financial wrongdoing by top political leaders in Azerbaijan.

President Aliyev and other senior politicians have denied repeatedly that there are any political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Presidential adviser Ali Hasanov restated the official position on May 15, telling political party representatives that he would nevertheless pass on their request for “the release of certain prisoners”. “I will bring this to the president’s attention,” he said, according to RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani service.

Afgan Mukhtarli is an Azerbaijani journalist living abroad.

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