(Berlin) – Azerbaijani authorities arrested numerous opposition activists and leaders on spurious criminal charges following a July 14, 2020 unsanctioned rally in Baku, Human Rights Watch said today. Thousands of people gathered that day to support the country’s armed forces amid an escalation of military tensions with neighboring Armenia. The charges range from violating lockdown rules related to the Covid-19 pandemic to destruction of property and an attempted coup.
Late on the evening of July 14, a small group of protest participants briefly broke into the parliament building and damaged property before police removed them. The authorities claimed it was an attempt masterminded by the political opposition to violently overthrow the government, and rounded up dozens of activists over the following days.
“The latest wave of arrests in Azerbaijan follows the well-documented pattern of politically motivated arrests and prosecutions and threatens to decimate one of the country’s oldest opposition parties,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately end the crackdown, release those unjustly imprisoned, and investigate law enforcement’s conduct.”
Human Rights Watch spoke with 11 lawyers and reviewed the court documents of 10 people detained since July 15 and the authorities’ official statements.
The arrests followed a nationally televised speech by President Ilham Aliyev, accusing the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (APFP) of instigating the violence, calling them “traitors,” “enemies,” and the “fifth column” and promising to “resolve” the issue.
Following minor clashes between a small group of the rally participants and the police outside parliament, police violently dispersed the crowd, using teargas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. According to an official statement, at least seven police officers were injured, and 16 cars damaged, two of them destroyed.
The authorities opened an investigation into “violating public order and resistance or use of force against a government representative.” Activists say that at least 80 people were detained on spurious administrative and criminal charges, although the exact figures are unknown.
Among them are 17 APFP members, none of whom, the lawyers said, were in the group that broke into the parliament. Many were not even at the rally. Yet 16 face criminal charges of using violence against an official, violating public order, and destruction of property, and one is accused of spreading an infectious disease. Five detainees – Asif Yusifli, Mammad Ibrahim, Fuad Gahramanli, Bakhtiyar Imanov, and Ayaz Maharramli – are members of the party’s presidium, a decision-making body; Gahramanli and Ibrahim face an additional charge of attempting to overthrow the government, punishable by up to 20 years or life in prison.
Four of the detained presidium members say that they did not participate in the rally. Courts sent all but one of the arrested party members to pretrial custody for up to four months. One, Elvin Mammadov, was released on his own recognizance.
One of the imprisoned party members, Mahammad Imanli, is facing criminal prosecution for “violating anti-epidemic, sanitary-hygienic or lockdown regimes,” with the authorities falsely alleging that he spread the Covid-19 virus. Imanli’s lawyer said that a district police officer detained Imanli at his apartment on July 16 and said he had to speak with the district police chief. He was arrested at the station.
Although Azerbaijani law prescribes that detainees must be brought before a judge within 48 hours of arrest, Imanli’s hearing took place six days later, on July 22. To cover up the violation, police claim in both the police report and the court’s pretrial detention decision document, reviewed by Human Rights Watch, that they apprehended Imanli on July 20 on a Baku street for not wearing a mask, tested him in a police station, and after the test came back positive, charged him with spreading the disease and endangering lives. Imanli’s lawyer said that his client had no symptoms when they met in custody, and Imanli denies the charges.
Mehdi Ibrahimov, son of the APFP deputy chairman Mammad Ibrahim, is also facing charges of violating sanitary-hygiene rules and remains in pretrial detention, based on a police claim that he had tested positive. Mehdi Ibrahim participated in the rally. His lawyer said that police rounded him up with over 100 participants the next day. Most were released within 24 hours, but Mehdi was kept in detention after it became known that he is the son of a well-known opposition member.
On July 22, a district court placed Ibrahimov in pretrial custody for three months and the authorities transferred him to the Penitentiary Service’s Specialized Medical Facility No.3, which used to be a tuberculosis ward, but currently houses inmates who have tested positive or have Covid-19 symptoms. On July 31, a doctor at the facility informed Ibrahimov’s lawyer that his client is in good health, that he does not have Covid-19 symptoms, and that the test taken in custody came back negative, leading Ibrahimov and his lawyer to question the grounds for the charges. The authorities did not share the tests results with lawyers for Ibrahimov and Imanli. Ibrahimov’s family members said that he is on a hunger strike, protesting his wrongful imprisonment.
In March, Azerbaijan toughened criminal sanctions for violating the health/hygiene and lockdown rules, making transgressions punishable by a fine up to 5,000 manat (approximately US$3,000) or up to three years in prison. Transgressions leading to the spread of disease or negligent death or other grave consequences could lead to three to five years in prison. Human Rights Watch has urged governments not to arrest or detain people for violating Covid-19 restrictions on movement.
Laws creating criminal sanctions for spreading Covid-19 are not a legitimate or proportionate response to the threat posed by the virus, Human Rights Watch said. Criminalization of exposure to and transmission of Covid-19 might also have negative public health consequences, including by discouraging people from seeking testing and care, and the use of such laws by authorities to target marginalized populations, minorities, or dissidents. The use of these laws against Imanli and Ibrahimov seems like clear retaliation for their political activity.
Police detained Mammad Ibrahim on July 26, as he carried a food parcel for his detained son. On July 28, a court sent him to four months in pretrial custody on charges of public disorder, damaging property, resisting police, and attempting to violently overthrow the government, even though Ibrahim was not at the July 14 rally.
Serious due process violations followed the detentions of the APFP members. The authorities provided state-appointed lawyers, even when the detainees requested and could have retained lawyers of their own choosing. At least three detainees’ lawyers tried to access their clients from the early hours of detention and presented the required official document. However, several investigators refused to accept them and demanded sending them by registered mail. As a result, the initial interrogations and the remand hearings took place in the presence of state-appointed lawyers, who are not regarded as independent in Azerbaijan. The police also did not allow most detainees to inform their families of their whereabouts.
Such blatant due process violations raise concerns of the risk of torture and ill-treatment. Human Rights Watch is aware of at least two allegations of ill-treatment and torture in custody. Seymur Ahmadov, a senior APFP politician detained on July 16, filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office describing severe beating in custody. In his letter, publicized by the Voice of America (VoA) Azerbaijan service, Ahmadov says that he was repeatedly and severely beaten in a pretrial detention facility. “When the plain-clothed officer got the truncheon, he beat me continuously for an hour,” the complaint said. “It was so bad that I could no longer feel the pain … the plain-clothes man … shouted and threatened that if I did not apologize in front of the camera, I would be subjected to worse violence and beaten to death”
One of the lawyers shared another case of credible ill-treatment in custody, but requested confidentiality, fearing further retaliation against the detainee.
Azerbaijan is a party to a number of international treaties, including the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits arbitrary detention, guarantees the right to a lawyer, including one of the detainee’s choosing, during police custody, and provides for the absolute ban on ill-treatment in custody, Human Rights Watch said. The European Convention on Human Rights also guarantees the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, both of which take on particular importance in connection to political speech, organizing, and participation.
On July 31, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly rapporteurs on Azerbaijan expressed “grave concern” regarding “the troubling pattern of arbitrary arrest and detention of government critics,” and urged the authorities to “ensure full respect for the freedoms of expression and assembly, the prohibition of torture, and the rights to liberty and security and to a fair trial.”
During his July 15 speech, President Aliyev emphasized that he would “not pay attention” to criticism from the Council of Europe and other international organizations about the crackdown.
“Azerbaijan’s international partners should not be intimidated by Aliyev’s belligerent speech and should speak up against the crackdown,” Gogia said. “They should urge the authorities in Azerbaijan to do the right thing – end the crackdown and release all those unjustly imprisoned.”