Azerbaijani Prisoners' Hard Freedom

Being pardoned in Azerbaijan only brings a new set of problems.

Azerbaijani Prisoners' Hard Freedom

Being pardoned in Azerbaijan only brings a new set of problems.

Wednesday, 29 September, 2004

Amir Kuliev was recently pardoned by President Ilham Aliev - but he has little to look forward to.

Five years in prison have left him without a family. As soon as he was handed down his conviction for burglary, his wife divorced him, placed their children in an orphanage, and went to Moscow with her new husband. Only Amir’s elderly mother welcomed him home.

“I know I did wrong, but I have paid my debt to society,” said Amir, 35. “How could she ditch me in his time of need after so many years together? How could she abandon our children?”

After almost a year in office, the Azerbaijani president is winning praise for his humanity after having pardoned and released nearly 1,000 prisoners. For many of them, however, freedom is proving almost as difficult as life inside.

Amir said he is now looking for work in order to support his mother and take his children back from the orphanage.

Another prisoner, who asked not to be named, was sentenced to 13 years in 1995 for an alleged attempted coup d’etat. He had served in a special police task force, known as the OPON, during the Nagorny Karabakh war. A few months ago, he was pardoned by the president and released after serving eight years in prison.

“They put us in jail for something we didn’t do,” the veteran said. “Where else would they punish a soldier for obeying his commander’s orders? I find myself unable to do anything since I’ve been pardoned. I haven’t recovered from the experience.”

President Aliev has issued four mass pardons since he took office in October 2003. According to Eldar Zeinalov, director of the Azerbaijani Human Rights Centre, the presidential decrees have resulted in the release of 914 convicts, 123 of them prisoners of conscience. Zeinalov believes the political prisoners owe their freedom to pressure by the Council of Europe, which has pressed the Baku authorities hard on this issue.

There are 11 prisons in Azerbaijan, but the justice ministry declined to disclose the number of prisoners held there. Elmira Alekperova, director of the El non-governmental organisation, claims the number of inmates is 15,000, while Zeinalov calculates it is 17,000. In any case, almost six per cent of the total number have been pardoned in the past 12 months.

Experts estimate that around two thirds of married prisoners, in particular women, lose their families while in prison.

Psychologist Nadezhda Safarova points to the Azerbaijani mentality as the reason why so many convicts’ families break up. “In Azerbaijan, men can get away with anything, but a man will punish his woman for the slightest infraction, let alone a prison term,” she said.

Under Azerbaijani law, it is very easy to divorce a prisoner. “The spouse remaining outside just needs to file a divorce plea. If the prison term exceeds three years, the marriage is voided immediately, and the other spouse will be notified accordingly in jail,” Elmira Halilova, head of the marriage records office in Khatain district. “If the term is less than three years, the case is decided in court.”

The single biggest problem the freed prisoners face is unemployment. “I haven’t been able to find work since I was released three years ago,” said Akif Magerramov, who served two thirds of his seven-and-a-half year term. “When they find out about my criminal record, they won’t even talk to me. It is pointless to try and explain that you are not a repeat offender, but someone who had made a mistake.”

“The indifference and mistrust ex-prisoners face compels many of them to commit more crimes,” said Isakhan Ashurov, a former police chief turned lawyer. “The majority of first-time offenders sooner or later go back to jail.”

He recalled that in Soviet times there was a whole system whereby freed prisoners were all offered jobs but that this had now disappeared.

One ex-con who has not been able to resume his professional career is Adil Geibullah, a leading member of the opposition political party Musavat, who spent three years in prison after hitting a pedestrian with his car.

“[Geibullah’s] professional activity was not discussed by the court and the court did not deprive him of his doctor’s license,” Ashurov noted. “So after he served his punishment he had the right to return to the department he headed.”

The war veteran referred to earlier has not had to encounter the problem of recovering his job or apartment or even his family. He has never had any of these. He went to war when he was 18, then to prison when he was 24. Now he is 32-years-old and has to start his life from scratch and he is not sure he is up to the challenge in Azerbaijan.

“I try to avoid my former fellow OPON soldiers,” he said. “When we do get together, all we ever talk about is the war and the many years we spent in jail for no reason. I don’t think I can take it anymore. Maybe I should leave the country and leave it all behind.”

Samira Akhmedbeili is a freelance journalist in Baku.

Karabakh, Azerbaijan
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