Renewed international pressure needed to secure freedom for all political prisoners
We, members of the Civic Solidarity Platform (CSP), are extremely relieved that our colleague Rasul Jafarov and 13 other individuals unfairly and unjustly imprisoned in Azerbaijan have been pardoned, allowing them to be released and reunite with their families and loved ones. We were equally relieved to learn that journalist Rauf Mirkadirov was released in Baku yesterday after an appeal court changed his prison sentence into a suspended one. As much as we welcome these news, we regret that the convictions of Mirkadirov and those set free on pardon have not been reversed and that many other critical voices remain behind bars in the country. We call on Azerbaijan’s international partners to use this momentum to press for further and unconditional releases of those imprisoned on politically motivated grounds, as well as for systematic measures to roll back repressive policies in the country.
According to a decree signed by Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev on 17 March 2016, Rasul Jafarov – who is the founder and chair of the Human Rights Club, a CSP member organization – was pardoned and released yesterday. He is now at home. Rasul has been at the forefront of the human rights struggle in Azerbaijan for many years. Among others, he initiated the innovative ‘Sing for Democracy’ campaign organized to coincide with 2012 Eurovision Song Contest in Baku and the subsequent ‘Art for Democracy’ and ‘Sport for Rights’ campaigns. He was arrested in August 2014 and sentenced to 6.5 years in prison in April 2015 on trumped-up tax evasion and other charges following a trial marred by serious violations of fair trial standards. The sentence against him was upheld on appeal, up to the level of the Supreme Court. However, yesterday the European Court of Human Rights issued a decision on his case, finding violations of his right to liberty and security and his right to have the lawfulness of his detention decided speedily by a court, as well as impermissible use of restrictions on rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights (Articles 5 and 18 of the Convention). Rasul’s case is but one example of how the criminal justice system in Azerbaijan has been misused by the authorities of this country in their attempts to stifle criticism.
The decree on pardoning signed by the Azerbaijani president on 17 March also includes the names of 13 other individuals imprisoned in retaliation for their civic, journalist and political activities as part of the recent unprecedented crackdown on free speech and dissent taking place in Azerbaijan. They include: human rights defenders Anar Mammadli and Taleh Khasmammadov, N!DA activists Rashadat Akhundov, Mahammad Azizov and Rashad Hasanov, journalists Hilal Mammadov, Parviz Hashimli and Tofig Yagublu, bloggers Siraj Karimli and Omar Mammadov, former government official Akif Muradverdiyev, chairman of the National Statehood party Nemat Penahli and advisor to the Chairman of the opposition Musavat Party Yadigar Sadigov. None of these individuals, who have all contributed to promoting democracy, justice and freedom in Azerbaijan, should have been imprisoned in the first place.
In another development taking place yesterday, the Baku Court of Appeal changed the 6.5-year prison sentence of journalist Rauf Mirkadirov into a suspended 5-year sentence, as a result of which he was released in the courtroom. The charges against him were, nevertheless, upheld. Mirkadirov, who worked as a correspondent for the Russian-language newspaper Zerkalo, was convicted of spying for Armenia in December 2015.
As documented by Azerbaijani and international NGOs, dozens of political prisoners remain in prison in Azerbaijan, including human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, youth activist Ilkin Rustamzade, journalist Seymur Hezi, opposition REAL movement leader Ilgar Mammadov and many other political opposition members, religious activists and other individuals imprisoned on politically motivated grounds. Earlier this month, the Baku Court of Appeal upheld a decision to deny veteran human rights defenders and peace advocates Leyla and Arif Yunus the right to travel abroad for medical assistance, which they would urgently need for their serious health conditions since adequate treatment is not available inside the country. Leyla and Arif were released under probation in December 2015 after their 8.5- and 7-year prison sentences on tax evasion and other charges were changed into five-year suspended ones. The health of both of them deteriorated alarmingly while they were in detention. A number of other Azerbaijani civil society activists and journalists have been forced into exile.
We, CSP members continue to stand in solidarity with all those affected by the wide-scale crackdown on freedom of expression and civil society engagement in Azerbaijan and call for the release of those who remain in prison for no other reason than their efforts to promote a democratic and free Azerbaijan. We are happy for the individuals unjustly deprived of their liberty who now have been freed, but regret that the convictions against them have not been overturned. We call on the international community to renew and step up pressure on the Azerbaijani authorities to ensure that all individuals held on politically motivated grounds in the country are unconditionally released. Until this has happened, there should be no normalization of relations with Azerbaijan.
Signed by the following CSP members:
International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR)
Analytical Center for Interethnic Cooperation and Consultations
Association of Ukrainian Human Rights Monitors on Law Enforcement
Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House
Center for Civil Liberties
Centre for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights
Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association
Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights
Human Rights Group “Citizen. Army. Law”
Human Rights Monitoring Institute
Human Rights Movement Bir Duino-Kyrgyzstan
Index on Censorship
Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law
Kosova Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims
Legal Transformation Center
Moscow Helsinki Group
Netherlands Helsinki Committee
Office of Civil Freedoms
Promo LEX from Moldova
Public Foundation Golos Svobody
Regional Center for Strategic Studies
Swiss Helsinki Committee
See photos of Rasul at his home yesterday.