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

Two Opposition Figures Jailed in Azerbaijan

Ilgar Mammadov and Tofiq Yaqublu convicted of inciting a riot although they weren't in town when it happened.
By Shahla Sultanova
  • Tofiq Yaqublu, deputy head of the Musavat party. (Photo: Aziz Karimov)
    Tofiq Yaqublu, deputy head of the Musavat party. (Photo: Aziz Karimov)
  • Ilgar Mammadov being driven away in a police car on the day of his arrest. (Photo: Aziz Karimov)
    Ilgar Mammadov being driven away in a police car on the day of his arrest. (Photo: Aziz Karimov)

A court in Azerbaijan has jailed two prominent opposition activists on charges they and their supporters say are wholly unfounded. 

On March 17, a court in the town of Sheki sentenced Ilgar Mammadov, head of the REAL opposition movement, to seven years’ imprisonment, while Tofiq Yaqublu, deputy head of the Musavat opposition party, received a five-year sentence.

They were convicted of “organising mass riots” and using “violence against police officers” in the town of Ismayilli in January 2013.

Yaqublu and Mammadov were among 18 people charged with public order offence in Ismayilli. Eight of the others were sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to eight years in the same trial, while the other eight received suspended sentences.

The convictions related to rioting that broke out in Ismayilli, a small town in central Azerbaijan, on January 23 last year, after a dispute over a car crash escalated into an attack on a hotel belonging to one of the drivers; the crowd then surrounded the home of the district government chief’s son.

Some of the protesters told IWPR that their anger was really about the way their town was run.

The next day, January 24, journalists, officials and others came to Ismayilli to find out what had happened. Mammadov and Yaqublu were among them, but they were later arrested and charged for inciting violence that had begun a day before they arrived in the town. (See Two Opposition Leaders Arrested in Azerbaijan on their arrest.) 

Mammadov’s lawyer Khalid Baghirov says the trial process was absurd.

“The court misrepresented the judicial record. Statements made in court were false. Videos made in the morning [of January 24] were presented as an evidence of what had happened at around 4 pm, the time when Mammadov was in Ismayilli,” he told IWPR.

REAL is a pro-democracy movement that was set up in early 2009 as a response to a constitutional change that allowed President Ilham Aliyev to serve more than two terms.

Azer Qasimli, a board member of REAL, said he believed Mammadov was targeted because the authorities were aware he planned to run for president. He was barred from standing, and the incumbent Ilham Aliyev won another term in the October ballot.

“The government didn’t want an opponent like Mammadov,” Qasimli told IWPR. “Now that he’s got seven years in prison, the Azerbaijani government intends to shut him out of political life altogether. They are afraid he could be a candidate in the 2015 parliamentary election, and they fear his growing influence on political life.”

Qasimli said that Mammadov’s imprisonment would complicate the way REAL was run, but that he would continue as chairman.

“Since it is mandatory for each board member to vote when decisions are made, we’ll have to wait until it’s possible for Mammadov to inform us of his opinion,” he explained.

Gulagha Aslanli, a deputy chairman of the Musavat party, said Yaqublu’s imprisonment was a major blow to the party.

“He is a very active and skilled individual. We have shared out his work among the other deputy chairmen, but he is much missed,” Aslanli told IWPR.

Besides his political activity, Yagublu also wrote a column in the opposition Yeni Musavat newspaper, in which he regularly criticised the government.

Leyla Aliyeva, a political analyst and director of the Centre for National and International Studies, says the treatment of the two opposition figures is intended to intimidate their colleagues.

“This is a message to others that if they step outside of the zone in which they’re allowed to operate, they will be punished as severely as those who were arrested for the Ismayilli events,” she told IWPR. “Officials believe that it’s possible to neutralise any threat by deploying their power and money. But this is a delusion. People’s unhappiness with the government can turn into rioting.”

Officials contacted by IWPR declined to comment on the sentences

After the two were detained last year, Siyavush Novruzov, chief executive of the governing Yeni Azerbaijan party, told the APA news agency that “the public is not concerned about their arrests”.

“Some people organise illegal protests and when the police arrive, they show their press cards as if they came to report on it,” he said.

At around the same time, Ali Hasanov, head of political affairs in the presidential administration, said this was nothing more than a normal legal process.

“Everyone must respect the laws of Azerbaijan. If you act outside the law, then you must answer for it, regardless of what political views you may hold,” he said.

Shahla Sultanova is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.