Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Detained Azeri Activist Makes Torture Allegations
A human rights activist in Azerbaijan has accused police of beating him till his eardrums burst to coerce him into confessing to a fictitious weapons offence.
Ilham Amiraslanov is part of the pressure group Kura, which tracks the use of money assigned to clear up damage caused by severe flooding in 2010.
As of March 2012, around 350 million manats, 440 million US dollars, had been disbursed to repair the damage, but activists say it is far from clear how the money has been spent.
On March 29, when President Ilham Aliyev announced that another 50 million manats would be earmarked for the work, Kura activists asked for civil society groups to be allowed to monitor the expenditure. They received no answer.
On June 3, Amiraslanov threatened to lead a march from the town of Sabirabad in protest at the lack of transparency.
News of the planned demonstration spread widely on social media networking sites and in the opposition media, and the next day, Emergencies Minister Kamaladdin Heydarov agreed to meet flood victims.
Amiraslanov’s brother Yaqubali said Heydarov was in angry mood when he addressed local residents.
“You didn’t want to leave your own neighbourhoods, so we rebuilt your homes on their old sites,” the minister said, according to Yaqubali Amiraslanov. “What more do you want?”
Ilham Amiraslanov and others at the meeting tried to tell Heydarov that the reconstruction work was going too slowly and that some people were still homeless.
Four days later, on June 8, Amiraslanov was detained.
In an open letter written from his prison cell later, he described being taken to a sports facility in Sabirabad, tied to a chair and beaten around the head and face. He said police officers placed a bag over his head so that he could not breathe.
Police then filmed themselves finding a Makarov pistol in Amiraslanov’s car, in the presence of a superior officer.
They told Amiraslanov to confess that his brother had given him the pistol.
“When I refused to do this, and said the gun had been put there by a man called Said [one of the officers present], this annoyed Said even more, and they began to beat me more than ever,” he said in the letter.
The officers then took him to Rauf Majidov, deputy head of the Sabirabad police, where he was questioned about the firearm and beaten again. He says officers threatened to “sit him on a bottle” if he did not confess – a reference to a common method of torture used in the region.
In the end, he was coerced into writing a statement that he had found the pistol two months earlier while out driving livestock, although he has never worked as a farmer.
He was then taken to his home, where police filmed him locating five bullets which he says were planted in his basement.
In his statement, he said the beatings had ruptured his eardrums, so that he now had poor hearing.
“I also feel a great pain in the region of my heart,” he wrote, asking for medical attention, and for doctors to testify that his injuries were sustained in a beating.
Amiraslanov’s lawyer Samir Isayev confirmed that his client’s hearing had been damaged.
Police deny having mistreated him. They also say that he is not a human rights activist, and that he has a criminal record for deserting from the army in 1997, and for an embezzlement charge in 2002.
“It is wrong to call someone with two convictions a human rights activist,” police spokesman Ehsan Zahidov said, adding that Amiraslanov would go to trial for illegal possession of a pistol and ammunition.
Majidov, the deputy police chief mentioned by Amiraslanov, did not respond to IWPR’s request for an interview.
The press offices of the interior ministry and the prosecutor’s office also refused to answer IWPR’s questions about the alleged abuse, saying they had no relevant information.
Amiraslanov is not the first member of the Kura group to be arrested and charged.
Oqtay Gulaliyev received a 12-day sentence for breach of the peace after being arrested on April 8. His case was then reclassified as the more serious offence of “incitement to violence”, so that he now faces up to three years in prison.
Gulaliyev was arrested in the village of Minbashi in the Sabirabad region while he was meeting local residents who were demanding a proper investigation into how the flood reconstruction money had been used.
He was released on July 3, but the criminal case against him remains open.
Gulaliyev told IWPR that he had written to Ali Hasanov, head of the presidential administration, to request a meeting. That meeting took place on July 9, and they discussed Amiraslanov’s case.
“Ali Hasanov said that the case of the rights activist Ilham Amiraslanov will be discussed at a high level,” he reported.
Amiraslanov remains in custody, in a pretrial detention centre in the capital Baku.
The Kura group has written to Azerbaijan’s human rights ombudsman Elmira Suleymanova to raised concerns about Amiraslanov’s state of health.
The prosecution service has not responded to Amiraslanov’s request for a medical examination.
Panah Huseyn, a leading opposition politician who was Azerbaijani prime minister in the early 1990s, said it was pretty clear what was going on.
“They’re using these arrests to intimidate the public, so that no one sticks their nose in where they shouldn’t, and so that officials can take public funds allocated for flood reparations for themselves. Two years have passed since the floods, and thousands of people are still waiting for new homes,” he said. “But the public will defend these activists who are being silenced through arrest.”
Mehman Aliyev, head of Kura, says the group will carry on regardless.
“The arrest of activists and the opening of criminal cases against them amount to official pressure designed to cover up the [actual extent] of work done to repair the flood damage, and the fact that most money has been used for other purposes,” he said.
More than 100,000 hectares of land and 20,000 houses were inundated when the river Kura burst its banks in 2010. The Kura group’s research indicates that although over half a billion dollars has been spent on reconstruction, some 10,000 families are still waiting to get new homes, or repairs to their old houses.
As a way of calculating just how much has been spent, Kura intends to publish lists of the houses that have been built and the compensation awarded to flood victims.
Azer Ismayil is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.
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