Updates on Politically Motivated Arrests and Convictions in Azerbaijan

Sam Williams 08/06/2019

Human Rights Watch’s September 2013 report, “Tightening the Screws: Azerbaijan’s Crackdown on Civil Society and Dissent,” documented the arrest and imprisonment of several high-ranking members of opposition political parties, numerous other government critics with large followings on social media, and people who had frequently been involved in political protests.Youth Activists

On May 6, 2014, the Baku Grave Crimes Court sentenced eight political youth activists to prison terms ranging from six to eight years on a series of bogus charges related to an alleged plan to instigate violence at a March 2013 protest that the authorities violently dispersed before it began. Seven of them – Bakhtiyar Guliyev, Shahin Novruzlu, Mahammad Azizov, Rashad Hasanov, Uzeyir Mammadli, Rashadat Akhundov, and Zaur Gurbanli – are from the youth opposition movement NIDA (“exclamation mark” in Azeri), which was founded in 2010 and campaigns for democratic reforms and the rule of law in Azerbaijan. The eighth, Ilkin Rustemzadeh, is a member of another youth movement, Azad Genchlik (Free Youth).

During the trial, at least three activists alleged that police had beaten them while they were in National Security Ministry custody, but the prosecutor’s office failed to effectively investigate the allegations.

On June 2 Bakhtiyar Guliyev wrote an appeal to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev from prison, repenting his “crime,” renouncing his NIDA membership, dismissing his lawyer, and requesting a pardon. At this writing he remains behind bars.

On May 6, 2014, police detained Orkhan Ayyubzade, 19, another NIDA member, when police violently dispersed about 200 people gathered outside the courtroom to protest the verdict against the NIDA activists. He was initially sentenced to 20 days of administrative (misdemeanor) detention, but as his term was about to expire, the authorities charged him with the criminal offense of resisting police and sent him to one month of pretrial detention.

Social Media Activists

Human Rights Watch has documented the Azerbaijani authorities’ pattern of pressing spurious drug possession charges to lock up their critics. In recent months, five more Facebook and other social media activists have been arrested or convicted on bogus drug possession charges. None had access to a lawyer of their choosing during their initial interrogations or remand hearings, while at least three complained of ill-treatment in police custody.

Abdul Abilov, 32, a social media activist and the administrator of the critical Facebook pages “Yaltaqlara dur deyək!” (“Stop those flattering the regime!”) and “Seçki saxtakarlığı” (“Election Fraud”), was arrested on November 22, 2013 in Baku on narcotics-related charges. Police claimed that drugs were found both in Abilov’s pocket and in his home. Both Facebook pages were shut down shortly after police seized his computer during a search of his home.

Abilov’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that at his trial, which is ongoing, Abilov said that the drugs were planted and that during his interrogation police asked him questions only about his critical posts, political activism, and relationship to the opposition Popular Front Party. Abilov was denied access to a lawyer of his own choosing during initial police interrogation and at his pretrial detention hearing.

On May 27, 2014, the Grave Crimes Court in Baku sentenced Abilov to five and a half years in prison.

Omar Mammadov, 19, is a popular blogger, administrator of the Facebook page “AzTV-dən seçmələr” (“Exclusives from AzTV”), and founder of the pro-opposition Axın (Stream) youth movement. He was arrested on spurious narcotics-related charges on January 24, 2014. Mammadov was not allowed to inform his family about his detention or retain a lawyer of his choosing before he was sent for three months of pretrial custody on January 25.

“Exclusives from AzTV” regularly criticized the country’s leading state television channel’s coverage of events. It featured satire and critical posts on alleged corruption, police conduct, violation of property rights, and repression of youth activists.

Prior to his son’s arrest, police twice summoned Mammadov’s father and warned him to keep his son, then studying abroad, away from opposition political activity. Two days before Mammadov’s arrest, police invited Mammadov and his father for a “talk,” confiscated his laptop, and demanded that Mammadov close the “Exclusives from AzTV” Facebook page.

Mammadov’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that police beat Mammadov in custody, although the prosecutor’s office said its investigation found no evidence of a beating. Forensic exam results showed no signs of illicit drug use. His trial began on April 30 and is ongoing. If convicted, Mammadov could face up to 12 years in prison.

Elvin Karimov, 26, a blogger and administrator of the Facebook page “Azad Söz” (Free Speech) was arrested on January 18 and held for two days in incommunicado detention.

“Free Speech” featured caricatures and blogs about police violence, socioeconomic problems, and human rights violations. During a search of his home, police confiscated Karimov’s computer and soon after the “Free Word” Facebook page was shut down for several weeks.

Karimov was sent for three months of pretrial detention on January 20 on narcotics-related charges. He was denied access to a lawyer of his choosing during both police interrogations and the pretrial detention hearing. A friend of Karimov’s, who was co-administrator of the Facebook page, told Human Rights Watch that National Security Ministry officials warned Karimov’s parents that if they spoke to the media or anyone else about the case, their son would face a lengthy prison term and possible ill-treatment. Karimov’s parents have since gone public about these threats.

If convicted, Karimov could face up to 12 years in prison.

Elsever Murselli, 18, a Facebook activist, was arrested one week before Azerbaijan’s October 9, 2013 presidential vote and was sentenced in April 2014 to five years in prison on narcotics possession charges. Based in Khachmaz, northern Azerbaijan, Murselli was active on social media during the lead-up to the presidential election, when he posted on Facebook about social problems in the region and alleged corruption and nepotism and called on people to vote for a political opposition candidate, Jamil Hasanly. Murselli had also participated in pre-election opposition demonstrations and posted video footage of the rallies online.

Police warned Murselli’s family that he could get a lengthy prison sentence if the family publicized the arrest to the media or retained a lawyer of their choosing; he was instead defended by a state-appointed lawyer.

Rashad Ramazanov, a well-known blogger who actively criticized the Azerbaijani government on Facebook and other social media, was arrested in May 2013 and convicted in November of dubious drug charges and sentenced to nine years in prison.

On July 3 the Sumgait District Court convicted Dashgin Malikov, a 22-year-old activist with the Azerbaijani opposition Popular Front Party, to two and a half years in prison on drug charges. On May 8, 2014, Azerbaijani authorities released Malikov on probation, and 18 days later he was pardoned under a presidential decree. Prior to his release, state media reported that Malikov had renounced his opposition party membership and joined the ruling party.