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Azerbaijan Prison Crackdown

A prison revolt opens a window on the country’s penal system.

The penal authorities in Azerbaijan have followed up their suppression of a prisoners’ protest with a crackdown in prisons across the country.

On February 15, 200 prisoners of Corrective Labour Camp 11 in Baku managed to seize and hold the roof of the four-storey prison building for an entire day. The rioters demanded the resignation of the jail’s chief, and an improvement in their conditions.

The protesters held posters with the words “the governor is a bloodsucker”, and demanded a meeting with the justice minister, the human rights ombudsman and the media.

When negotiations broke down, the authorities took the decision early on February 16 to storm the building with water cannon.

At 2 am local time, a number of armoured vehicles and fire engines arrived at the scene. Forty minutes later the assault began, with the military releasing tear gas onto the roof. At 4.30 am, the rioters came under fire from cascades of water and automatic rifle shots could be heard. Resistance finally ended by 7 am, with the last frozen prisoners surrendering.

According to Yashar Aliyev, deputy head of police in Baku, the operation was successful and nobody was seriously wounded. However, the civil rights campaigner Saidi Gojamanli told IWPR that around 20 prisoners and a few special forces troops were badly injured. She said five prisoners had cut their veins with pieces of slate on the roof, but their lives had been saved by medical personnel.

Very different explanations have been given for the protest. According to one version, the conditions in Camp 11 were very hard, and the rioters wanted to attract the public’s attention to their problems through their action.

Both local human rights activists and foreign observers have noted that the conditions in Azerbaijan’s jails have markedly improved since 2001, when the country joined the Council of Europe. Before that the prisons were notorious for the use of torture, the incidence of TB and generally high levels of mortality. The justice ministry took over the prison system and conducted reforms.

However, conditions in many prisons remain poor and that, in the opinion of Ali Kerimli, leader of the opposition Popular Front party, was what triggered the prison riot.

“The conditions in prisons are simply unbearable,” Kerimli told IWPR. “The staff treat the prisoners brutally; and there are problems with food and hygiene.”

Bakhar Muradova, deputy head of the pro-government Yeni Azerbaijan party, rejected this charge telling IWPR, “You have to bear in mind the dynamic of reform of our prisons. You can’t compare the situation in the prisons of Azerbaijan with what we had five or ten years ago. And the improvements are continuing.”

The well-known human rights activist and director of the Azerbaijan Human Rights Centre Eldar Zeinalov believes that the situation has improved, but not by much as is claimed. “The prison administrations are riddled with corruption,” he said. “They extort money out of prisoners in return for granting them their legal rights.”

Nonetheless, he and others agree that conditions in Camp 11 were far from the worst and in many respects were better than in other camps.

Elmira Suleimanova, the human rights ombudsman, said that she had visited Camp 11 a week before the riot and heard no complaints about conditions there. “Now I understand that a group of prisoners wanted to create a thieves’ economy and live in the prison by criminal rules,” she said.

Relatives of prisoners there give different accounts of what they found inside.

“I visit my son once a month, and I haven’t noticed any particular problems,” said 67-year-old Firuza, mother of Husein Khanbabayev, a prisoner serving an eight-year sentence in the camp. “The governor is kind to us, and doesn’t make us wait for meetings.”

Another prisoner’s mother, who wished to remain anonymous, was more critical. “We have to bring food and clothing,” she said. “We pay between 20 and 50,000 manats (between four and ten US dollars) for every meeting that they arrange. The food here is of very poor quality and my son says that it is what they feed pigs with.”

Another explanation that has been given for the protest is that it was politically motivated following a purge of the leadership of the prison system. At the end of January, its head, Aidyn Gasymov, was arrested on corruption charges. Following his arrest, several jail bosses were sacked.

“They were all close colleagues of the former head of the prison system,” said a prison guard who asked not to be named. “Oktai Hasanov, head of Camp 11, was one of only a few Gasymov allies who stayed in his job. The revolt was designed to hurt Oktai Hasanov’s reputation.”

Hasanov responded to calls for his resignation by saying, “I could resign with a sullied reputation. But there are 842 prisoners in our colony and only 50 or 100 of them climbed on to the roof. So why should we follow the whims of just a few people?”

Following the suppression of the revolt, officials from the ministries of justice and interior swept through six other prison camps with dogs in what they said was a search operation for drugs and weapons.

The authorities said they had identified more than a 100 crime bosses in the operation and transferred them to tougher prisons.

At the same time, leaders of five human rights organisations were allowed to monitor conditions in several jails.

“We don’t believe these [raids] were illegal,” said Ching Ganizade, one of the human rights monitors at a press conference following their mission. “However, we should point out that force was used in these special operations.”

One man who fell victim to the sweep through the jails was Rauf Arifoglu, editor of the opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat, who was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for allegedly provoking disorder after the October 2003 presidential elections. The authorities confiscated cash and a mobile telephone from him, both of which are not allowed under prison regulations.

Idrak Abbasov is a correspondent with Zerkalo newspaper in Baku.

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