Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
As List Grows, Azeri Leaders Say "What Political Prisoners?"
President Ilham Aliev argues that the human rights situation in Azerbaijan is looking good. (Photo: Azerbaijani president's website)
As it took over the chair of the Council of Europe’s decision-making body last month, Azerbaijan committed itself to upholding the core values of a grouping that calls itself “the continent's leading human rights organisation”.
Human rights defenders in the country say the government falls so far short of meeting these commitments that it should never have been allowed to take up the six-month rotating chairmanship of the CoE’s Committee of Ministers on May 14.
Addressing a CoE meeting in Vienna on May 6, Azerbaijan foreign minister Eldar Mammadyarov pledged that his country would pay particular attention to the grouping’s “three key pillars – human rights, rule of law and democracy”.
The day Azerbaijan officially took over the chairmanship, police arrested rights activist Emil Mammadov. A Baku court ordered him held for three months while charges of blackmail were investigated.
The same day, May 14, the Supreme Court in Baku rejected an appeal by Rashad Ramazanov, a blogger critical of the government who was arrested on drugs charges and given nine years in prison.
A day later, Parviz Hashimli, a journalist with the Bizim Yol newspaper, was jailed for eight years. He has been held since September last year and accused of a firearms offence.
Amnesty International has declared both Ramazanov and Hashimli prisoners of conscience.
On May 26, a court sentenced Anar Mammadli, head of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Study Centre to five-and-a-half years’ jail. His colleague Bashir Suleymanli got a three-and-a-half-year term. (This trial was covered in Five Years' Jail for Finding Fault With Azerbaijan Election.)
Prosecutors are currently investigating journalist Rauf Mirqadirov, who was arrested on April 19 on charges of spying for Armenia. (Azerbaijani Journalist Accused of Spying for Armenia.) In the same case, they have also questioned leading rights activists like Leyla Yunus, head of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, and Matanat Azizova, head of the Women’s Crisis Centre.
On June 10, Azerbaijan’s court of appeal postponed the hearings of Tofiq Yaqublu, deputy head of the opposition Musavat party, Ilgar Mammadov, head of the REAL movement, and Yadigar Sadiqov , an adviser to the head of Musavat. Sadiqov was convicted of assault, while Mammadov and Yaqublu were jailed in relation to riots in the town of Ismayili.
The European Union has deemed all three to be political prisoners and demanded their release.
Elman Fattah, head of a committee set up to defend Sadiqov, said the timing of the postponement looked like a matter of political convenience.
“On June 21, we expect [President] Ilham Aliyev to speak at the Council of Europe,” Fattah said. “The president is certain to face tough questioning, and it’s now very likely that he’ll reply to questions about political prisoners by saying that this case hasn’t finished yet.”
Aliyev ignored appeals from international organisations to use a May 28 amnesty to free some at least some of these individuals, and Fattah said the president was hoping to avoid embarrassing questions.
“We are expecting a fresh round of amnesties on June 19,” he explained. “By postponing the dates for the appeals of Mammadov, Sadiqov and Yaqublu, the government can now explain why they won’t feature on the list.”
Meanwhile, members of the youth opposition group NIDA who were given long sentences last month said they had come under pressure to ask for pardons. (See Condemnation After Youth Activists Jailed in Azerbaijan on the case.)
On June 2, the justice ministry published a statement from one of the eight, Bakhtiyar Guliyev, renouncing NIDA and asking not to be considered a political prisoner. The next day the ministry published a letter from Guliyev to the president requesting a pardon.
Defence lawyer Elton Guliyev said other members of the group had also been asked to write to the president, but had refused.
Omar Mammadov, a blogger on trial for alleged drugs offence, told RFE/RL radio on June 6 that he too had turned down a suggestion that he seek a presidential pardon. Mammadov, who was studying at a university in Northern Cyprus before his arrest in January, was well known for blog posts harshly critical of the government.
Rasul Jafarov, head of the Human Rights Club, said the government was showing total disrespect for the CoE by persisting with repressive policies while taking up a senior position on the council’s governing body.
“There have been new arrests, courts have jailed journalists and bloggers for long periods on the basis of false evidence, and the amnesty list signed on Republic Day [May 28] did not include political prisoners,” he said.
“You should not believe the government’s promises to defend human rights and democracy. We must steadily increase our criticism, our pressure and our demands.”
Leyla Yunus told reporters on June 9 that she was establishing a Centre for Opposing Repression to find new strategies for pressing the government to change its ways.
“Our tactics have not worked, and that’s why there are now 130 political prisoners in Azerbaijan,” she said. “We must demand ever more loudly that Ilham Aliyev free the political prisoners.”
Asked about the interrogation of Yunus at a joint news conference with French president François Hollande on May 12, President Aliyev told reporters there were no political prisoners in Azerbaijan.
“The human rights situation in Azerbaijan is positive. No one is investigated for their political views,” he said. He then added, “No other country can influence the steps we take in our domestic and foreign policies.”
Arif Hajili, head of the Musavat party’s secretariat, said foreign states including CoE members must demand that Azerbaijan live up to its obligations.
“When Azerbaijan entered the Council of Europe, it assumed obligations not to hold political prisoners and not to restrict people’s rights,” he said. “The world community and the Council of Europe must demand that the Azerbaijani government of Azerbaijan release political prisoners and ensure freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and all fundamental freedoms.”
Afgan Mukhtarli is a journalist with www.civil-forum.az.
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