On Friday, 4 July 2014, Ömar Mammadov was sentenced to five years imprisonment on charges of drug possession with the aim of selling it. The young man was firstly accused of possession of narcotics for his own consumption. When arrested on 21 January 2014, he supposedly was found with 6 grams of heroin on him. During the investigation, an official state agency confirmed that he was not a user, however recommending he should follow medical treatment. The investigation hence changed its charges and accused him of wanting to sell the heroin, based on investigations ahead of his arrest. The problem however is that he only came back from months of studies abroad on 20 January, a few hours before his arrest, as he stated in his final words in court on 4 July. Member of the NIDA movement, Ömar Mammadov was in fact the administrator of a Facebook page critical with the government.
“This case is an illustration of the way authorities fabricate charges against disturbing voices,” HRHF’s Head of Advocacy and Geneva Office Florian Irminger said following a week in Baku, specifically spent on meeting families and lawyers of political prisoners. Along with Freedom Now and the coordinator of the Working Group on political prisoners in Belarus, Volodymyr Yavorskyy, HRHF indeed organised a mission on political prisoners in Azerbaijan early July 2014. The group also attended the final hearing in the case of Ömar Mammadov and the delivery of the judgement.
Political prisoners, a sad reality in Azerbaijan
Asked about the situation in this regard at the June session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), President Ilham Aliyev answered “there are no political prisoners in Azerbaijan” and added “Azerbaijan is a member of the European Court of Human Rights. All issues relating to prisoners can be addressed there. We respect the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. Therefore, once again, the attempts to attack our country are absolutely groundless. They will have no result.”
In contrary, as stated by Freedom Now’s Executive Director Maran Turner in an interview with Radio Free Europe in Azerbaijan, “unfortunately, arbitrary arrests and prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan is a key issue in the field of human rights in the country.” Human Rights Watch shared updated information with members of PACE ahead of the session in regard to political prisoners (avaiable here).
“Azerbaijan has a revolving ‘door policy’ when it comes to political prisoners, arresting a few and releasing others again and again”, said Florian Irminger in the same Radio Free Europe interview. Amongst those punished for their work are Anar Mammadli and Bashir Suleymanli, NIDA activists, as well as journalists such as Rauf Mirkadirov or Hilal Mammadov. Others are punished because of their wish to participate to the public life, such as political activists Ilgar Mammadov and Tofiq Yaqublu.
These are emblematic cases of political prisoners, whether human rights defenders, activists or journalists. In Azerbaijan, their imprisonment goes along with the legal threats against those defending them.
Harassment of lawyers and human rights defenders
Lawyers are indeed working in a more and more dire situation. For years now, they have been intimidated in their work when taking up politically motivated cases, including by being excluded from the Bar Association. “During the mission in Baku, we also learned that the mandatory registration of grants for legal associations are now being refused by the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Azerbaijan, just alike other human rights NGOs”, said Florian Irminger.
Harassment against human rights defenders also continues in the country. Right now, the case of Leyla Yunus is emblematic of a harassment strategy aiming at slandering her and her colleagues publicly and delegitimising her work, as members of the Human Rights House Network stated in their letter of 30 April 2014 to the Minister of Internal Affairs and the Prosecutor General of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijani media to the mission on political prisoners:
- “Azadliq” newspaper interview of Florian Irminger of 5 July 2014
- Radio Free Europe interview of Maran Turner and Florian Irminger of 4 July 2014
- Ömar Mammadov final words (court hearing – 4 July 2014)
- Anar Mammadli and Bashir Suleymanli must be released
- Shame and fame for Azerbaijan
- Persecution of human rights defender Leyla Yunus
- United Nations calls upon Azerbaijan to drop charges against Anar Mammadli
- 61 european MPs call for the immediate and unconditional release of Anar Mammadli
- Three years since the authorities ordered closure of the Human Rights House Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan’s Council of Europe chairmanship, with political prisoners:
The issue of political prisoners is key to the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, firstly because it was one of the essential commitments Azerbaijan made when adhering to the Council of Europe. This 47 strong member European organisation indeed also has the question of political prisoners as a core issue, since the adoption of the resolution 107 in 1956.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has extensively worked on the issue of political prisoners with various resolutions adopted in 2002, 2004 and 2005. In January 2013, a resolution on political prisoners in Azerbaijan prepared by Christoph Strässer (German MP) was turned down. However, PACE adopted a resolution of the Monitoring Committee, which established the existence of political prisoners in Azerbaijan:
18.4. with regard to alleged political prisoners and prisoners of conscience:
18.4.1. review the cases of human rights defenders, activists and journalists detained on criminal charges following trials whose conformity with human rights standards has been called into question by civil society and the international community;
18.4.2. use all available legal tools to release those prisoners whose detention gives rise to justified doubts and legitimate concerns;
18.4.3. release on humanitarian grounds alleged political prisoners whose state of health raises concern;
18.4.4. fully implement the resolutions of the Assembly related to alleged political prisoners in Azerbaijan.
At its June 2014 session, PACE decided to reopen the case on political prisoners in Azerbaijan and sent a motion for a resolution to its Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights. The Committee appointed Pedro Agramunt (Spanish MP) as rapporteur on the question. At PACE, Pedro Agramunt is known for being one of the friendliest MPs with Azerbaijan, although he is also within the Monitoring Committee the co-rapporteur on Azerbaijan.
Read the interview of Paul Flinn (United Kingdom MP) of 7 July 2014 on Radio Free Europe on this process.