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Inside Azerbaijan's Prisons: The Anatomy of Corruption
Former political prisoner, activist and video blogger Adnan Hajizada giving an interview outside the courthouse in Baku following his release. (Photo: Azadliq Radio, Azerbaijan Service for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)
Youth activist, author of Harlem Shake video, Ilkin Rustamzade. (Photo courtesy of I Rustamzade)
In a satirical video, Mr Heisel (donkey in German) gives a press conference in Baku to an audience of nodding journalists. The parody, which referenced accusations that the government was paying unreasonably high prices to import donkeys, led to the arrests of Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada. (Still from a video by Olmedia)
Endemic corruption continues to haunt Azerbaijan’s prison system, with prisoners expected to pay for everything from access to washing facilities to food and medicine.
Azerbaijan’s prison structure is divided into several categories: pretrial detention centres, prisons and penitentiary institutions as well as temporary detention facilities inside most police stations.
Former prisoners say that every month they need to spend between 100-150 manat (60-88 US dollars) in pretrial detention and around 50 manat (30 dollars) once in a penitentiary facility. All note that their families provided them with food and any medication they needed. Many describe also routine psychological and physical abuse during their time in jail.
Independent lawyer Samad Rahimli explained that detainees in pretrial detention centres have to pay to use even such basic services such as access to a fridge. Former detainees say that a private shower costs between 20 cents or one manat for ten minutes, while wardens will fetch food from the prison market for a fee.
“Everyone expects a bribe in exchange for leaving you alone,” said Adnan Hajizada, who was sentenced in 2009 to two years in prison on charges of hooliganism - a common tactic used against dissidents - but released after 16 months following international pressure.
He recalls constant demands for money from prison staff inside the Kurdakhani detention centre.
Emin Milli was arrested alongside Hajizada and shared a cell with him in Kurdakhani. Milli was sentenced to 30 months in prison on hooliganism charges, but also released after 16 months following international pressure.
He said that other prisoners told them that detention centres were often more cramped than actual jails.
“They preferred prisons instead because prison is like a small village, you can walk outside, doors open at 7am and close at 9pm,” he said, adding that detention centres had no space to move around in.
After sentencing, Adnan was sent to penal facility No 14 and Milli to penal facility No 5, each made up of ten barracks, with 100 people sharing each barrack.
There, the system of payments continued, with bribes demanded for access to private showers, laundry services and other basics. Those without cash paid in cigarettes, one of the most popular commodities used inside.
More wealthy inmates lived in so-called bourgeois huts or burjuy, a name adopted from Russian. As well as equipment such as stoves and knives, which are absolutely against the prison rule, these cells came complete with a phone, television, and sometimes even an internet connection. For a monthly fee, four inmates could share these cells, a huge luxury compared to the crowded barracks.
Other wealthy prisoners choose to live permanently in the prison hospital, where they can enjoy more space, fewer people and a private bathroom and shower.
According to the law, penitentiary facilities are fully funded through the state budget or other legal sources. In reality, life in prison costs money.
Family members of detainees say they bear a major part of the burden, spending on average 200-400 EUR on each prison visit.
Sevinc Mammadova is the mother of imprisoned youth activist Bayram Mammadov, who was arrested in 2016 for spraying graffiti on a statue of former president Heydar Aliyev and then sentenced to ten years in prison on “drugs charges”.
She said she provides for all her son’s needs in prison, from clothes to food and money to buy other basic supplies When he came down with a kidney infection, it was Mammadova who supplied him with all the necessary medication.
“I visit him twice a month, and each visit costs around 230 euro,” she explained.
Shura Khanim is the mother of Giyas Ibrahimov, who was sentenced together with Mammadov. She said that she spent 150 euro on each of her twice-monthly visits.
“Had it not been for the assistance of friends and other donor organisations, I would have never been able to afford any of this,” she said.
Ibrahimov’s lawyer, Elchin Sadigov, explained that the prison medical ward had little medication apart from surgical spirit, aspirin and other basic painkillers. For any health-related issue, the burden is on prisoners’ families to help them.
Rahimli said that visitors even had to bribe the prison guard to increase their chances of getting access to detainees.
Passing on packages with food and other goods incurred an extra cost of around two or three AZN (one or two dollars).
“If you feel generous that day, you can always add more, or if you want to make sure the package reaches the prisoner,” he added.
Once inside the detention facility, further bribes were required to obtain tea or any snacks to share with the inmates.
Rahimli explained that prison guards, like other civil servants, were underpaid and so relied on the extra income they earned from bribes.
Psychological and physical abuse is also common. A report from the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) recently found that “torture and other forms of physical ill-treatment by the police and other law enforcement agencies, corruption in the whole law enforcement system and impunity (lack of effective investigations) remain systemic and endemic”.
In an interview following his release, journalist Javid Shiraliyev described the ill treatment he was subjected to at Band Otdel - the Grave Crimes Investigation unit, notorious for torture.
Shiraliyev was arrested in 2014 and sentenced to five years on charges of extortion in May 2016 but released in April, 2018 after serving three years and eight months.
“I was beaten with police batons,” Shiraliyev told Azadliq Radio, the Azeri service for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty. “My toe nails were removed. I was tied to a table, and beaten on the soles of my feet.”
Imprisoned youth activist Ilkin Rustamzade described his experiences in a July 7 letter from the Detention Facility No 13.
“I have been behind bars for six years now. But for the first time, I feel weak. For the first time, I need your support more than ever. I am suffocating and cannot breathe. I am facing the toughest of limitations [...] And this is just a small part of it. I feel I no longer have the strength [to cope]. They shaved my head, while my hands were handcuffed from the back”.
Rustamzade was arrested in 2013, originally on charges related to his alleged involvement in making a satirical Harlem Shake video. These charges were later replaced with inciting violence and organising mass disorder during peaceful protests in March 2013.
Rustamzade has been placed in solitary confinement multiple times, forced to write confessions and offered the chance to be an informant in exchange for early release.
The then-21 year-old university student was tried along with seven members of the N!DA youth movement and sentenced to eight years in prison in May 2014.
The other seven have since been released but Rustamzade remains in prison. He continues to deny the charges against him.
Arzu Geybulla is an Azerbaijani journalist currently based in Istanbul.
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