Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan: Spotlight on Horror Jail

Mysterious deaths mount in high security prison.
International organisations have condemned the horrendous conditions in Azerbaijan’s most notorious prison, whose former governor is about to go on trial.

Sadagat Agayev, governor of Azerbaijan’s Gobustan high security prison, was sacked from the job last November, accused of having abused his powers. His trial is due to start soon.

The Gobustan prison is situated around 40 kilometres west of Baku. It houses dangerous criminals, most of them on life-sentences and is famous for its tough regime and riots by prisoners. Currently, a large number of them are on hunger strike.

Several suspicious deaths have occurred at the prison over the past year. The issue was highlighted in a report by Parliamentary Assembly on Council of Europe co-rapporteur for Azerbaijan Andreas Herkel that was submitted to the assembly on April 16.

“A group of Azerbaijani human rights activists have given me documents with evidence that inmates of the Gobustan prison are subjected to physical and psychological violence. This grieves me deeply, and I think that a country aspiring to become part of Europe should not allow such things to happen,” Herkel said in his report.

The US Department of State’s most recent report on human rights says that the last year saw three people die in police custody in Azerbaijan due to abuse and mistreatment, but that no policemen or officials were prosecuted for these deaths.

Last May, two lifers Magomed Bagirov and Elchin Aliev were found hanged in Gobustan. A criminal investigation was inconclusive.

“The investigation identified no persons, through whose fault the prisoners might have committed suicides,” chief of staff of the justice ministry’s central department Musa Gumbatov told IWPR. “That is why the criminal case was closed down quickly.”

In August, another life-term prisoner Kamandar Aslanov was said to have killed himself. However, one of the Gobustan jail’s inmates sent a message to Aslanov’s family, saying the man had been beaten to death by jailers.

Prosecutor Tariel Gurbanov, who handled the case, told IWPR that no evidence supporting the allegation had been found during the investigation, “It appeared that Kamandar was an unbalanced person, and his life sentence drove him into despair. We had no way other than closing up the case.”

On September 27, yet another Gobustan prisoner Yury Safaraliev was found hanged in the prison’s baths.

His relatives blame the then governor Sadagat Agayev for the death. They allege that Agayev disliked Yury for refusing to “render tribute” - pay a bribe - to him.

“That is why the guards - upon orders from Sadagat Agayev - frequently beat him [Safaraliev] and locked him up in solitary confinement,” said Safaraliev’s mother. “Unable to endure the torture and bullying any longer, Yura made several attempts to kill himself by cutting his veins last January. Each time, he was saved. However, the last time no one happened to be near to save him again.”

Investigator from the Garadag district prosecutor’s office Vusal Muslimov told IWPR that no traces of violence had been found on Safaraliev’s body. “There’s no doubt that it was suicide,” he said. “At first, a criminal case under article 125 (assisted suicide) was initiated, however later it was dropped, since no persons responsible for Safaraliev’s suicide had been identified.”

Mysterious deaths continued after the prison authorities had changed. Lifer Makhir Mustafayev died in his cell under strange circumstances shortly after Agayev’s dismissal.

According to the justice ministry, Mustafayev was alone in his cell, lost consciousness for some unknown reason and was burnt alive by a fire sparked by a cigarette he’d been smoking.

Criminal expert Mahmud Gajiev said this version of events was absurd.

“If Mustafayev were alive and had just fainted, he would have been brought round by the pain from being burnt in a cigarette-caused fire,” he told IWPR.

Ayaz Imanov also met a mysterious death in the jail. Acting prison governor Shahkishi Bagirov said the 27-year-old Imanov had met his mother and two sisters the day he died, February 17. “[Imanov] had problems with his stomach,” said Bagirov. “He underwent treatment twice in the prison hospital. Maybe, this was the cause of his death.”

The Garadag district prosecutor Tariel Gurbanov told IWPR that an investigation into the death was under way. “According to the preliminary version, the prisoner died of heart failure,” he said. “He had stomach cramps on the day he met his family members for the last time. The forensic expertise will establish the precise cause of his death.”

However, Imanov’s mother says her son had no problems with his health.

The Gobustan jail has also seen murders. On March 5, Bairam Ragimov, sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment, was killed by his cellmates Isa Aliev and Tarlan Aliev, who have now been charged with his murder.

“The cellmates demanded that Ragimov give them some of the money he’d received from his family,” said Gurbanov. “A quarrel followed that resulted in their killing him.”

“The deaths in detention facilities are a cause of great concern for us,” Nazim Alekberov, who heads central department of the justice ministry, told IWPR. “That is why we undertake internal office investigations in parallel with investigations conducted by the prosecutor’s office.”

But former prisoners and human rights activists say the real picture of life in the jail may be even worse, as inmates are afraid to speak out.

“After visits by commissions, jailers beat prisoners, who have complained to representatives of human rights organisations, within an inch of their lives,” said former prisoner Polad Gajiev. “That is why, however intolerable the prison life, most prisoners dare not complain to anyone, preferring to kill themselves.

“In Gobustan, they placed a lunatic named Babek in my cell. The man almost never slept, he screamed and knocked his head against the wall all the time. Finally, I asked the prison authorities to get him out of my cell. Because of my complaint, the jailers started beating me. This lasted for several days. I had to cut my veins to get them to leave me alone. Fortunately, doctors of the prison hospital managed to save me.”

There are also complaints of serious abuses in other prisons.

“My son was tortured for a long time in Colony No. 8,” said Sekhergyul, mother of prisoner Idris Abdullayev. “He had to write a letter to president Ilham Aliev, using his blood for ink. But he has never received a reply.

“Idris was beaten for refusing to share the content of parcels from home with the authorities and jailers. I guess he will be subjected to more tortures because of my complaints.”

“Violations of law and mistreatment of prisoners happen in other jails too,” said Sahib Mamedov, a member of a public organisation that monitors the prison system. “But suicides of prisoners and murders by jailers are particularly frequent in the Gobustan prison.”

Psychologist Azad Isazade said there were two types of suicide – demonstrative gestures and real attempts to die. “Prisons have a greater incidence of demonstrative suicides,” he told IWPR. “A wish to die is not the cause of the suicides, it’s just a way for prisoners to express their protest against horrible prison conditions, against violence, injustice and lawlessness.”

He said prisoners harmed themselves to further their demands or get themselves placed in the prison’s hospital, where conditions are more tolerable. But, he added, suicidal gestures result in deaths too.

Director of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan Eldar Zeinalov said the prison authorities were directly responsible for what happened in their prisons.

“Firstly, if conditions in prisons meet human norms, no one will resort to suicide,” he said. “Secondly, in order to prevent suicidal attempts, prisoners should not be allowed to use piercing and cutting objects, cords and so on. If prisoners have access to these things, it means the authorities and staff of the prison are inefficient.”

Samir Kyazymly is a correspondent with the newspaper Gyundelik Azerbaijan (Daily Azerbaijan).