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Azeri Torture Claims Mount

Baku authorities dismiss growing evidence of widespread police abuses.
By Magsud Kerimov

Western governments and international human rights organisations are concerned about what they claim is widespread use of torture by Azerbaijani law enforcement authorities.


The US ambassador to Baku, Reno Harnish, told the London-based Guardian last week, "Torture is reprehensible. We have been very public in our criticism of abuses, [but] 70, maybe 80 or even 90 per cent of our approaches on this issue are private."


Local and international human rights watchdogs single out the Anti-Organised Crime Agency, AOCA, of the interior ministry as perhaps the most unscrupulous and brutal of Azerbaijan’s law enforcement bodies in its use of torture.


The agency became infamous in the wake of the October 15, 2003 presidential ballot, when hundreds of opposition activists protesting the election of President Ilham Aliev were detained.


Natik Jabiev of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, DPA, told IWPR how he suffered at the hands of the agency, “On October 18, 2003, our secretary general Sardar Jalaloglu did not show up at work, so we went to his place to find out what was going on. Only minutes after we entered his apartment, around 20 masked people came to the door demanding to be let in.


“Another group of masked and armed individuals broke in through the window. One went to open the door for the first group still waiting outside, while the others started beating us with the backs of their AK47s. Then they set about trashing the place: broke the computer, the couch, and some tableware.”


The scene, said Jabiev, was accompanied by the loud screaming of Jalaloglu’s children - his wife, who tried to intervene, was knocked unconscious, “Eventually they picked us up, while continuing to beat and insult us, and dragged us to their van where they put us on the floor face down.”


Jabiev claimed the masked assailants had never introduced themselves or shown any sort of arrest warrant, “When the van stopped inside the AOCA compound, they dragged us out and put us face down on wet, cold ground. Then they videotaped us for about ten minutes at different angles, and took us all to separate rooms.


“ I was not beaten at this point, just insulted. Finally, they took me to this other room where Vagif Mamedov, chief of the anti-gangster division at AOCA, started beating me for no apparent reason, without saying a word. I was in a chair with my hands handcuffed behind my back. He kept kicking me on the head with his fists and legs. From behind my back, Mamedov hit me hard on my ears with his palms several times. I only saved my eardrums from bursting by opening my mouth.


“When Mamedov got tired of beating me, they dragged me away, only to me bring back 30 minutes later for a questioning by AOCA’s investigation chief Farhad Suleimanov and another investigator. They demanded a testimony that Jalaloglu and DPA chair Rasul Guliev had staged riots in Baku on October 15 and 16, 2003 with the aim of deposing the government. When I tried to contend that DPA is committed to peaceful political campaigning, Mamedov, visibly rested after his earlier effort, stepped in to beat me again.


“They didn’t get anything out of me. Late that night, they dragged me to a cellar in their remand prison. Mamedov told me I was in line for more beating in the morning. I was also told they would rape me unless I give them the testimony they wanted.”


Jabiev said he was saved by good fortune when representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross came to the prison next morning. The violence, he said, let up after this, and prisoners were given some food. Jabiev was eventually charged with “disobeying police authority” and “rowdy behaviour” and sentenced to 15 days in prison.


The authorities have dismissed Jabiev’s claims. Earlier this year, Tahir Kyazimov, a senior official in the Azerbaijani prosecutor’s office, told ANS television, “ We conducted a special investigation and established that no torture was used against him.”


Other cases stemming from the October riots are still going through the courts. Igbal Agazade, who heads the Umid party, told a court on June 29, 2004, that his guilty plea had been extracted from him under torture. Agazade was arrested in connection with the same attempted “coup”.


In court, the chief justice, Mansur Ibayev, roundly overruled all opposition complaints related to the use of torture to obtain evidence.


In January 2004, Human Rights Watch issued a 55-page report highlighting mass use of torture on opposition activists in police custody, citing instances when arrestees were undressed, humiliated and beaten unconscious in their prison cells. Many complained investigators had threatened them with rape and electric shock. HRW said human rights abuses had sunk to a ten-year-low.


Alongside the organised crime agency, HRW said that torture was being applied to non-political detainees as well, “The police will torture all suspects irrespective of charges, from petty theft to drug possession to murder. Arrestees are beaten, starved, and denied access to family and lawyers.”


The US State Department, OSCE and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe have also denounced the practice.


HRW singled out the anti-organised crime agency for particular criticism. In response, Farhad Suleimanov, the chief investigator of the agency, told journalists that allegations that torture had been applied to opposition activists last year were a “libel”.


He said of the 119 people arrested, only 18 were taken into the custody of his unit, but later handed over to police investigators. “Force was only used within the bounds of the law,” he claimed. “And only to those rioters who resisted.”


However, Elchin Bekhbudov, an Azerbaijani campaigner against torture, who claims he himself was tortured in police custody in 1995, said that the number of complaints recorded by his pressure group was increasing, with 50 received so far this year. Bekhbudov said he had evidence of torture victims dying from their treatment.


Human rights campaigner Murad Sadaddinov told IWPR that not a single officer has been punished for using torture since October 15, 2003. Far from it, on June 30, President Aliev promoted anti-organised crime chief Vilayat Eivazov to the rank of Major General.


The Baku opposition press has reported that Eivazov stands to be appointed chief of Baku police.


Eldar Zeinalov, who heads the Azerbaijani Human Rights Centre, said that the issue is not receiving the attention it deserves in part because few torture victims are bold enough to come forward. “Over 80 people arrested in the wake of the October 2003 riots have been released,” he said. “But none of them have complained, although in court many of them were attested by doctors to have been tortured.” Zeinalov said there are no exact figures to estimate the true level of police brutality.


Magsud Kerimov is the pseudonym of an Azerbaijani journalist in Baku.


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