Azerbaijan’s embattled civil society received a rare glimmer of hope today as President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree ordering the release of 148 prisoners, including 10 prisoners of conscience, said Amnesty International. The move came just hours after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Azerbaijan’s detention of one of those released – human rights defender Rasul Jafarov – violated international law.
“The release of 10 prisoners of conscience is always good news, but celebrations should be muted by the fact that at least eight still remain behind bars. While this is a welcome development, praise for the Azerbaijani authorities should be reserved for when all those unjustly imprisoned are released and the squeeze on civil society ends,” said Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia.
While this is a welcome development, praise for the Azerbaijani authorities should be reserved for when all those unjustly imprisoned are released and the squeeze on civil society endsDenis Krivosheev, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia
“More disappointingly still, eight other journalists, activists and human rights defenders remain behind bars, convicted on trumped-up charges. President Aliyev must show he is truly committed to addressing Azerbaijan’s appalling human rights record by immediately and unconditionally releasing them.”
Amnesty International has documented Azerbaijan’s increasingly harsh restrictions on civil society and political activists over the past year. Critics of the government have faced harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests and, in many cases, long prison sentences.
The prisoners released today are Rashadat Akundov, Rashad Hasanov, Omar Mammadov and Mammad Azizov, members of the pro-democracy youth movement NIDA; human rights activists Rasul Jafarov, Hilal Mammadov and Anar Mammadli; and opposition activists Yadigar Sadigov, Siraj Karimov and Tofig Yagublu. Human rights defender Taleh Khasmmadov and journalist Rauf Mirgadirov have also been released after being imprisoned on politically motivated charges.
European Court ruling on detention of Rasul Jafarov
The decision to release the prisoners came shortly after the European Court ruled that the detention of human rights defender Rasul Jafarov violated several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. Rasul Jafarov, the President of the NGO Human Rights Club, is a prominent figure in Azerbaijan’s civil society and drew global attention to human rights abuses in the country when he coordinated the “Sing for Rights” campaign during the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest in the capital Baku. In April 2015, after two extensions of his pre-trial detention, he was sentenced on a range of politically motivated charges including tax evasion, abuse of power, illegal business activities, and embezzlement, and sentenced to six and a half years in prison. The European Court said today that it was clear that the actual purpose of the measures against him was to silence and punish him for his activities as a human rights defender.
“Rasul Jafarov’s case is typical of the deeply deficient judicial system in Azerbaijan, where charges are literally made up in order to exact revenge on anybody who dares to speak out against the repressive regime. Today’s verdict at the European Court sends a strong message to the Azerbaijani authorities that their ruthless crackdown on dissent is indefensible,” said Denis Krivosheev.
Still behind bars
Prisoners of conscience who remain behind bars in Azerbaijan include the journalist Khadija Ismayilova, whose shocking treatment by the authorities was documented by Amnesty International last year in a report called Guilty of Defending Rights. Khadija Ismayilova has won awards for her investigative work exposing corruption and human rights violations in Azerbaijan, and is currently imprisoned on charges which are typically reserved for the government’s critics: embezzlement, illegal enterprise, tax avoidance and abuse of authority. In 2012, she was sent copies of photographs of her having sex, apparently taken after unknown individuals had secretly placed cameras in her apartment, together with a note threatening to “shame” her if she did not abandon her work. Renowned human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev is also still in prison, where his health is rapidly deteriorating as a result of a lack of adequate medical care.
Prominent opposition activist Ilgar Mammadov remains behind bars despite the ruling by the European Court that he had been arrested for criticizing the government, as well as the repeated calls for his release by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. Bloggers Rashad Ramanazov and Elvin Karamov, political activist Faraj Karimov, and NIDA members Abdul Abilov and Ilkin Rustamzadeh also remain in prison. “The fact that many of the remaining prisoners of conscience were locked up on similar charges to those released today only serves to illustrate the arbitrary nature of justice in Azerbaijan,” said Denis Krivosheev.
“The Azerbaijani authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all remaining prisoners of conscience, and take concrete steps to ensure that human rights are respected in the country in line with international law.”