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

Georgia: Azeri Activist Threatened

Detention of Azeri opposition activist condemned by Georgian human rights defenders.
By Dmitry Avaliani
Georgia has denied refugee status to an Azerbaijani human rights activist, despite claims that he will suffer persecution if he is returned home.

Georgian activists say the case of Azer Samedov raises questions about the Georgian government’s human rights credentials. The Georgian authorities detained Samedov, head of the non-governmental organisation Caucasian Centre for Protection of Freedom of Conscience and Religion, who had been living in Georgia since March 31, following a request from Azerbaijan.

The Azerbaijani authorities accuse Samedov of having organized “mass riots” in Baku during the presidential election in October of 2003, when opposition supporters disputed the official verdict that President Ilham Aliev had won the poll. If convicted of that offence in Azerbaijan, he faces a prison sentence of between five and seven years.

Tbilisi’s circuit court initially sentenced Samedov to two months’ pre-trial detention, but then an appeal court revoked the decision on April 14 and Samedov was released on bail.

In May, Samedov asked the Georgian ministry for refugees and settlement for refugee status, saying he feared political persecution if he returned home, but the request was rejected.

“He failed to prove that the Azerbaijani authorities were pursuing him for political or religious reasons,” Irakly Kokaia, who heads the migration, refugees and repatriation department of the ministry for refugees and settlement, told IWPR. “None of his colleagues in Azerbaijan had been arrested.”

If the Georgian authorities do not revoke their decision, Samedov will stand trial and may then be extradited to Azerbaijan.

“The issue of Samedov’s extradition is being considered in compliance with norms of the international law observed by Azerbaijan and Georgia,” Elhan Polukhov, press attache of the Azerbaijani embassy in Georgia, told IWPR. “The Azerbaijani side is sure the Georgian court will take the right decision.”

But Samedov himself insists that this is a political case. “At the time of the presidential election in Azerbaijan, my colleagues and I supported the opposition candidate Isa Gambar,” said Samedov. “But we got caught up in the street disorders accidentally... We just happened to be nearby and were photographed and videotaped.

“There are forces in Georgia, who want to win favour with the Azerbaijani authorities.”

Samedov’s lawyer Manana Kobakhidze says the ministry was given substantial evidence that he would be harassed in Azerbaijan if he is returned there. “The persecution of members of his organisation, as well as an arrest of two of them has been recorded in a report by the Amnesty International,” she said. “The facts are also reflected in a US State Department report. There are witnesses too.”

She said Samedov’s colleagues had been set free on bail after protests from international organisations, but only after they had endured torture while in jail.

Lawyer Tamaz Avdalian, who acted for Samedov in the Tbilisi court, said, “He is being accused of having organised mass disorder, whereas in fact he was monitoring the poll. There were many people alongside of him, including the Norwegian ambassador to Azerbaijan and they all can confirm he’s innocent.”

Georgian human rights campaigner Emil Adelhanov also sees the decision as a gesture of loyalty by the government in Tbilisi to their counterparts in Baku.

“By rejecting Samedov the Georgian authorities took a political decision signalling that Azerbaijan is our friend,” he said.

The chairman of the Georgian parliament’s human rights committee Elene Tevdoradze, who helped Samedov get bail, agreed, “There was some kind of a deal in sign of friendship between the presidents of our countries.”

In its ruling, the ministry says Samedov is not seeking to get a political asylum in Georgia, but “to build a platform for political activities levelled against Azerbaijan”.

“What has this to do with a ‘platform’ against Azerbaijan?” said Samedov. “If I have committed a crime under Georgian law, I must answer for that. But the criminal code does not have an article about a ‘platform’, does it?”

Samedov said his activities in Georgia had been confined to organisation of a five-month-long course to monitor protection of human rights. At the same time, he said, a group of Georgian Azerbaijanis wanted to found a Georgian Muslims Union - a body that would independent from the official Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Caucasus based in Baku.

Samedov said he had met the people involved and given them some advice, but he had nothing to do with the efforts to establish an alternative Muslim organisation.

Eldar Zeinalov, director of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, said Samedov had been an active member of the religious community of the Juma Mosque in Baku before the 2003 election and he also had sided with the Azadlyg (Freedom) opposition movement and been head of a non-government organisation DEVAMM (Centre for Protection of Religious Believes and Freedoms).

“Worshippers said that people from Azerbaijan’s security services had called at the mosque after the October 17 [1993] poll, who said they were looking for Samedov, not only in connection with the election, but because of his alleged ties with some terrorists,” Zeinalov told IWPR.

Zeinalov said none of the more than 130 people convicted in connection with the 2003 October events remained in custody in Azerbaijan.

“Samedov is most likely to be released too,” said Zeinalov. “However, there’s no guarantee that the fantastic charge of his having links with terrorists won’t resurface. Then the fear of tortures may become a reality, just as in other ‘terror’ cases.”

Sozar Subari, who serves as Georgian “people’s defender”, or human rights commissioner, recommended that Samedov be given refugee status in Georgia. He said the wording of the ministry’s refusal was obscure and absolutely unacceptable.

“Even if a man is facing only a one-day imprisonment, he is entitled to a defence,” said Subari.

Azer Samedov says he intends to file an appeal against the Georgian government’s decision in September. He has already applied to the UN Commissioner for Refugees, hoping to find a temporary refuge in a third country until he proves his innocence.

He said that his case had tarnished Georgia’s reputation for being a democratic country that supported human rights.

“Unfortunately, Georgia failed to be such a country,” said Samedov.

“I presented documents from very influential human rights organizations to the Georgian side. They make it clear that there is torture and at best an unfair trial awaiting me at home. Isn’t that a good reason to protect me?”

Dmitri Avaliani is a correspondent for 24 Hours newspaper in Tbilisi.

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