“Mehman Huseynov works bravely and passionately to expose inequality and corruption, and to draw attention to other issues Azerbaijanis face in their everyday life. Every moment he remains behind bars is a moment too long,” commented Maria Dahle, Director of Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF).
“The authorities in Azerbaijan must meet their human rights obligations and release Mehman Huseynov. The international community must continue to speak out on his case, and demand that journalists and human rights defenders are free to do their legitimate work in Azerbaijan,” she continued.
The sentence for defamation is based on Mehman Huseynov reporting that he was tortured while in police custody – a situation he found himself in after being abducted in Baku in January 2017 by unidentified assailants and taken to a police station.
At the time of his sentencing in March last year, HRHF responded: “Mehman Huseynov has been sentenced to two years imprisonment because he dared to say in Azerbaijan… that he should not be tortured, he should not be arrested, and in fact he should be free to do his work.”
Mehman Huseynov maintains his innocence and has called the case against him politically motivated. He has appealed at all levels of the Azerbaijani court system. Bringing this process of domestic appeals to an unjust and unsatisfactory end, the Supreme Court Azerbaijan upheld Huseynov’s two-year sentence in June 2018.
Mehman Huseynov is far from the only journalist in Azerbaijan to be targeted for their work. His case emblematic of the crackdown on independent media and human rights defenders by the authorities.
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Observers from Human Rights House Tbilisi have attended and reported on Mehaman Huseyov’s appeal hearings.
The Azerbaijani courts of first and second instances found Huseynov guilty for criminal defamation, under article 147.2 of the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan, for statements he made alleging torture while in police custody.
The police chief of the station where Mehman Huseynov was detained took this as a personal insult and pursued a charge for defamation. However, Mehman Huseynov’s defence has repeatedly asserted that the charge implies defamation against a concrete individual, while Mehman Huseynov in his statement did not mention individuals but criticised the system generally.
The defense has also emphasised that the footage taken from surveillance cameras near the police department could have confirmed the exact time Mehman Huseynov was taken into custody in January 2017, but the private prosecutor’s side has not presented the video recordings. The Courts have also rejected procedural requests by the defence, such as for Mehman Huseynov not to be held in court in a cage.
At the Court of Appeal, Mehman Huseynov said: “I am not here only for myself. I am here so that your children are not in my place tomorrow. If you uphold the judgement against me, you have no guarantees that you and your children will not be in my place tomorrow.”
On 25 June 2018, the Supreme Court upheld previous decisions to dismiss these arguments, and upheld Mehman Huseynov’s two-year sentence.
Mehman Huseynov refused to take part in the Supreme Court hearing. In addition to the representatives of the parties, the hearing was attended by embassies and diplomatic corps, journalists and Mehman Huseynov’s friends and family members.
At the hearing, Mehman Huseynov’s defence emphasised that they have already applied to the European Court of Human Rights for violation of Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) – prohibition of torture (based on Mehman Huseynov’s arrest in January 2017).
Based on the facts of this criminal case, Mehman Huseynov’s lawyer will further apply to the ECtHR, alleging, amongst others, the violation of the freedom of expression.
HRHF notes that the European Court of Human Rights has found in favour of Azerbaijani human rights defenders Rasul Jafarov, Anar Mammadli and Intigam Aliyev in recent years, often concluding that Azerbaijan limited the rights of human rights defenders with the purpose of punishing them for their civil society work.
(Updated August 2018) For several years, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers and many others demanded the release of unjustly detained opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov, in accordance with a judgement passed by the European Court of Human Rights. He was released in August 2018.
A target of the authorities
Some 50 member and partner NGOs of Human Rights Houses called for Mehman Huseynov to be immediately and unconditionally released, in a joint letter sent to the Azerbaijani President and authorities in March 2017.
They also called for a thorough and impartial investigation into the use of torture against Mehman Huseynov and to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice. Addressing the wider situation for human rights defenders, the letter calls for the authorities to put an end to the unprecedented repression against civil society, end all baseless investigations against human rights defenders and their organisations, and amend legislation to ensure that it is line with Azerbaijan’s human rights obligations.
Prior to his arrest in 2017, the authorities in Azerbaijan have consistently targeted Mehman Huseynov, his family, and the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), the organisation of which he chairman. He was first arrested in 2012, and since then has been regularly interrogated by authorities, who have confiscated his official documents and imposed a travel ban on him. In September 2016, he was taken to a police station and interrogated and threatened with torture.
In November 2016, he was elected as IRFS’s new chairman. The previous chairman of IRFS, journalist Rasim Aliyev, died after being violently attacked in August 2015 in Baku. Prior to Rasim Aliyev, Emin Huseynov, Mehman Huseynov’s brother, was chairman of IRFS. He was forced into hiding and to leave Azerbaijan. As well as the harassment of its leaders, the IRFS has also suffered from administrative blocks on the organisation being able to operate in the country.
Recent international developments
Mentioning Mehman Huseynov specifically, the European Parliament (EP) adopted a resolution on 4 July, addressed to the European Council and the European Commission as negotiations on a new EU-Azerbaijan Comprehensive Agreement are ongoing.
It calls for these institutions to “ensure, before the conclusion of the negotiations, that Azerbaijan releases its political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, including, among the most emblematic cases, Ilgar Mammadov, Afgan Mukhtarli, Mehman Huseynov [among many others].”
The recommendation of the EP is important in view of the fact that such agreement will ultimately have to be ratified by the EP.
Also, recognising this issue, the Council of Europe appointed at the end of June a new rapporteur, Iceland’s Thorhildur Sunna Ævarsdóttir, to report on political prisoners in Azerbaijan.
Access to justice in Azerbaijan
Confounding access to justice in Azerbaijan, lawyers defending human rights defenders are often targeted by the authorities.
As HRHF reported in Human Rights Lawyers at Risk, retaliation against lawyers bringing cases to international mechanisms, defending politically active individuals or taking cases related to human rights violations is common in Azerbaijan.
At the UN Human Rights Council in June, HRHF raised this issue in a dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, focusing on the use of administrative detention (Emin Aslan), disbarment as a sanction (Fakhraddin Mehdiyev, Nemat Karimli, Asabali Mustafayev, Yalchin Imanov, Irada Javadova, Alaif Hasanov, Khalid Baghirov, Elchin Namazov), and travels bans against human rights lawyers (Intigam Aliyev and Annagi Hajibeyl).