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Opposition

Exiled Azerbaijanis protest against arrest of Azad Hasanov

The Azeri Times

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On Friday last week, 19 October, a group of Azerbaijanis living in German exile gathered in Nuremberg to protest against the recent arrest of Azad Hasanov, a member of the Musavat opposition party who was arrested in Baku and sentenced to four months in prison on alleged charges of drug trafficking.

The protest, organised by members of the Musavat party, was attended by a number of exiled Azerbaijanis, including from other political parties and organisations.

Participants demanded to free Hasanov and other political prisoners and criticized Western countries prioritizing energy interests over the promotion of democracy and human rights.

Azad Hasanov has been living in Lithuanian exile since 2014. He returned to his home country on 10 October to visit his critically ill father and was arrested the day after. As lawyer Emin Aslan earlier this year, Hasanov was taken from the streets by men in civilian clothes and resurfaced hours later in police custody. A court has sentenced him to four months in prison on alleged charges of drug trafficking. He faces up to twelve years in prison.

Opposition

Released from prison, Azerbaijani opposition leader girds for political fight

The Azeri Times

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İlgar Mammadov meets with youth activists representing the VKontakte groups "Az.Dem" and "Turkun sesi" on August 17, 2018. (realpartiya.org)
Does an opposition politician have any hope in Azerbaijan?

The question may seem absurd on its face: Azerbaijan is one of the most authoritarian governments in the world, where the family of President Ilham Aliyev has over the years increasingly tightened its monopoly over the government. There are no opposition parties in parliament, and independent politicians are systematically forced into exile or imprisoned.

But Ilgar Mammadov believes that not all is lost in Azerbaijan. Once the country’s most famous political prisoner, Mammadov was released in August and has resumed his position as head of the Republican Alternative Party, or REAL. Now, he says that REAL intends to contest elections and believes it has a fighting chance.

“We are not that naive to assume that all of a sudden President Aliyev will choose to conduct free and fair elections. That is not going to happen,” he said. But with enough political pressure, he said, the authorities can be forced to run at least a partially free election that would allow his party to win some seats in parliament. “A quality change is something that is certainly achievable. If we get a good representation in the parliament, even if the elections were not perfect, that may introduce new dynamics.”

The scenario Mammadov is sketching out – an opposition party leveraging its handful of seats in parliament into a broader change and ultimately removing the Aliyevs from power – draws inescapable comparisons to Armenia. There, earlier this year, Nikol Pashinyan parlayed his party’s small perch in parliament to lead a popular movementthat ultimately forced longtime leader Serzh Sargsyan to resign and propelled him into the prime minister’s position.

Mammadov shies away from direct comparisons to Pashinyan. But he said that Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution” has had an impact on the political thinking of Azerbaijanis, particularly the educated middle class that he sees as REAL’s core constituency.

“The whole society was watching the events in Armenia very closely. […] The middle class of Azerbaijan, students, low- and middle-level government officials, entrepreneurs and so on – the class which is in contact with Georgians and Armenians when they travel abroad – they feel kind of underprivileged,” he said. “The sense of inferiority appears in that class when they compare Azerbaijan with Georgia and Armenia, in the sense that those two nations were able to at least try the democratic path. But we are still failing. And that sense has a political significance.”

Mammadov spoke to Eurasianet in REAL’s small office just outside central Baku, and repeatedly apologized for the dust and disorder caused by ongoing renovations. The offices were sparsely decorated, save for posters celebrating the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, the short-lived experiment in democracy a century ago that the country’s opposition still reveres as an inspiration for today. In one corner, an Azerbaijani flag was positioned next to one from the European Union. Mammadov, a fluent English speaker, looked like one of the entrepreneurial class he aims to represent, wearing jeans, a crisp shirt and stylish glasses.

Before being released in August, Mammadov had spent five years in prison on charges of organizing mass riots. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the charges against him were politically motivated, aimed at silencing or punishing him for criticizing the government, and called for him to be released. When Azerbaijan refused to implement that ruling, the Council of Europe initiated proceedings that could have led to the country being kicked out of that body. Mammadov ultimately was released the week before German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Baku.

Mammadov was released only on probation, and is still pursuing a full acquittal. Without being acquitted, it’s not clear whether he can legally run for office in Azerbaijan; he said party lawyers are currently researching the question.

In the meantime, he said he will try to mobilize politically, both inside Azerbaijan and internationally, to pressure the authorities in Baku not to block him from running. The next national elections are for parliament, scheduled for late 2020, but REAL is pushing for early elections.

While Azerbaijan’s beleaguered opposition frequently boycotts elections in the belief that the deck is too stacked against them, Mammadov said that a boycott is a poor strategy as long as there is at least the potential for fair elections in the country. “Despite all the shortcomings of the electoral code, ODIHR [the international election-monitoring organization] believes that it is in principle possible to conduct free and fair elections even on that law. Otherwise they wouldn’t send 500 observers, spend millions of dollars, to observe elections,” he said.

The Azerbaijani opposition also is notorious for infighting, and Mammadov said that REAL, at least, intends to change that. “There was a time when I did criticize the old opposition severely, for many reasons which they deserved. But now I don’t see any point in fighting against them or campaigning against them,” he said.

Part of the reason is political: REAL has already sufficiently differentiated itself from other political parties, making it no longer necessary to criticize them. It is also partly for security: Mammadov said he has received threats from “the very top of the government,” and he recalled the case of Rasim Aliyev, a media rights activist who was beaten to death after criticizing an Azerbaijani soccer player on Facebook. Many still suspect that Aliyev’s death was related to his politics.

“They [the government] use any little quarrel with a group not affiliated with the government to achieve their ends, be that harassment or even murder,” Mammadov said. “So if I quarrel with these guys [opposition], at some point they can just murder me and say ‘oh, it’s just internal, settling accounts within the opposition.’ This is a very serious security consideration.”

As a result, he said, “I have to be at peace with everyone, crazy, non-crazy, groups of bicycle lovers, or I don’t know who else. The only side which I will continue to criticize is the government.”

For now, the government has mostly ignored Mammadov’s political efforts. One commentator with a reputation as a pro-government attack dog wrote a lengthy takedown whose tone was mostly mocking: “It’s clear that what moves you is a desire to seem bigger, stronger, wiser, and so on than you actually are.”

Even many of Mammadov’s sympathizers see his political chances as meager. “They are not ready for the fight in this situation,” said Samed Rahimli, a human rights lawyer who was affiliated with the party in the past, but is no longer. “Not only REAL, but all the opposition forces lack grassroots participation. Without grassroots participation you can’t fight in the streets to take back your rights.”

Mammadov said that the membership of the party counts in the “thousands” and that it has opened 20 offices across Azerbaijan.

Another ally, longtime opposition politician and analyst Zardusht Alizadeh, said he took the longer view. While the government may control every lever of power, Mammadov can publicly raise issues that people care about and which the government is unable to address. “And Mammadov and his friends can formulate these issues and show people that he sees and knows how to solve these problems, that is to set the agenda. And the moment will come when that will be their advantage.”

Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.

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Opposition

To punish or pardon?

The Azeri Times

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The number of political prisoners in Azerbaijan remains approximately the same from year to year. The president regularly signs pardon decrees but the “vacancies” on bunk beds in prisons are quickly occupied by newly-arrived opponents of the political elite of Azerbaijan.

The following is a Meydan TV report about how the possibility of pardon is used to manipulate political prisoners and how the prisoners themselves have become bargaining chips in the Azerbaijani government’s foreign policy.

Ask for mercy

Ilkin Rustamzadeh is a 27-year-old activist of the youth opposition movement N!DA (“exclamation” in Azeri). Ilkin stands accused of organizing unrest. He is in his sixth year of serving an eight-year sentence. The international human rights organization Amnesty International has named him “a prisoner of conscience”. Rustamzadeh has previously complained about the conditions he is held in, but the most recent message he sent from the prison sounds more like a cry for help:

“I’ve been in prison now for six years. But I feel this powerless for the first time. This is the first time I need your support this much. I’m choking, I can’t breathe. Everyday they’re slowly killing me.” Rustamzadeh’s fellow activists from the N!DA movement recorded this message on a phone and then published it on N!DA’s Facebook page.

Tofig Yagublu, a member of the opposition Musavat Party and former political prisoner himself, believes that Rustamzadeh “is being harassed for his intransigence”.
Ilkin’s intransigence is that he has not asked to be pardoned even once over the years he has spent in prison.

“All those who were arrested together with Ilkin Rustamzadeh have already been released. He is the only one [from that group] still in prison because he perseveres,” Yagublu said in an interview with Meydan TV.

A protest under the slogan “Stop Soldier Deaths!” Fountain Square, Baku, March 2013
A protest under the slogan “Stop Soldier Deaths!” Fountain Square, Baku, March 2013

Non-combat soldier deaths

The case of the N!DA movement activists has gone down in Azerbaijani history as one of the country’s most high-profile trials.

N!DA activists had protested against the fact that dozens of people had been killed in non-combat situations in the Azerbaijani army and those deaths were not investigated.

The “Stop Soldier Deaths!” rallies were held in downtown Baku in March 2013 and gathered, according to opposition media, about 3,000 people – most of them youths, but the parents of slain soldiers took part, too. In addition to demanding investigations into the soldier deaths, the protesters chanted “Resign!” several times. Water cannons and batons were used to disperse the protesters, and police detained 60 people.

The protest was broken up with water cannons and truncheons, Fountain Square, Baku, March 2013
The protest was broken up with water cannons and truncheons, Fountain Square, Baku, March 2013

Eight young people were found to be the organizers, the youngest only 17. All of them were charged with arms possession and organizing unrest, and, in addition, some of them were charged with drug-related crimes and hooliganism. They were sentenced to six to eight years.

“When they arrived to search our house, I told them straight away that there was nothing special at our place and if they found a weapon or a Molotov cocktail, that would mean that they had brought it and planted it,” Ilkin’s mother Atlas Huseynova recalls.

The parents of soldiers who died took part in the demonstration, Fountain Square, Baku, March 2013
The parents of soldiers who died took part in the demonstration, Fountain Square, Baku, March 2013

The trial lasted eight months but no evidence was provided for even one of the charges filed, Ilkin Rustamzadeh’s defense lawyer Nemat Kerimli argues.

Playing humanitarian games

In 2018, international human rights activists released a list of Azerbaijani political prisoners with 128 people on it. Last year, there were 158 and in 2016 – 119. Dozens of political prisoners are released from prison annually, but their place is soon taken by new ones, and their number does not particularly change from year to year.

Observations from previous years show that if a prisoner asks the president of Azerbaijan to pardon them, then, most probably, he will really pardon them sooner or later. Strange as it may seem, it is even advantageous for the government to release someone held in prison for political reasons. Political prisoners (primarily those who have already asked the president for pardon) are normally released when there is a need to ease tension in relations with international organizations.

Ilkin Rustamzadeh at a protest under the slogan “Stop Soldier Deaths!”
Ilkin Rustamzadeh at a protest under the slogan “Stop Soldier Deaths!”

Rights activist Rasul Jafarov, who was also a political prisoner not so long ago, believes that presidential pardons in Azerbaijan are PR stunts: “The government simply wants to gain political dividends and uses this as a bargaining chip. This is especially convenient in international relations,” he says.

Jafarov recalled that it was under pressure from international organizations that the most well-known political prisoner – the leader of the opposition party ReAl, Ilgar Mammadov, was released in Azerbaijan recently. Mammadov had been sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of “organizing unrest accompanied by arsons and pogroms”.

Mammadov had also refused to file for pardon and for this reason he spent five years in prison, but his imprisonment caused a huge international outcry – many international organizations demanded that Mammadov be released, while EU countries threatened Azerbaijan with sanctions. The opposition activist was released immediately before German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Azerbaijan in August 2018.

And don’t forget flowers

President Aliyev sometimes releases those whose prison term is coming to an end anyway – those people were the majority on the list of those pardoned by the most recent decree, Rasul Jafarov says.

“This kind of a pardon looks more like a cheap political move than a humanitarian act. Pardon in Azerbaijan is actually reminiscent of a part of the punitive mechanism. Azerbaijan’s legislation does not require a prisoner to personally write a petition to the president. The government makes them do so. In this way, the government seeks to portray them for society as criminals who have conceded their mistakes and repented them,” the rights activist says.

Political prisoners are sometimes released in return for loyalty, meaning that they have to promise that they will never resume their political or public activities after they are released from prison. They are sometimes required to reinforce these promises with some political gesture – there have been several cases when people released from prison have received insistent recommendations that they visit the grave of Heydar Aliyev, the former president of Azerbaijan (and father of the current president) and be sure to put flowers on it.

Ilkin Rustamzadeh’s loved ones and colleagues say that pressure is constantly exerted on him – the prison administration demands that he submit a pardon request. In addition, requirements are imposed on him that are stricter than those imposed on other prisoners. This is no surprise, however, because the treatment political prisoners get is always much worse than treatment given to felons.

“Others can pay a bribe and have the conditions they are held in improved to a certain extent. But in our barracks there was no way you could move your bed around the cell,” former political prisoner Tofig Yagublu recalls. He adds that in the three years he spent in prison he never could buy a newspaper or send a letter to his family.

Ilkin’s mother Atlas Huseynova’s biggest fear is that because of pressure and torture her son will not be able to leave prison “alive and healthy” after spending there the eight years he was sentenced to. However, the parents’ efforts to make their son change his mind have been unsuccessful.

“Every time we tell Ilkin that he should write a pardon request, he responds: did I commit any crime?” says Bakir Khalilov, the activist’s father.

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Opposition

EUROPEAN COURT AWARDS DAMAGES TO NIDA MEMBERS

The Azeri Times

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The European Court of Human Rights has awarded damages to four political activists in their case against Azerbaijan.

On 7 June, the court awarded Rashad Hasanov, Zaur Gurbanli, Uzeyir Mammadli, and Rashadat Akhundov 20,000 EUR each in non-pecuniary damages and a total of 11,000 EUR in legal costs. Azerbaijan is required to make the payments within three months.

The four activists are board members of the civic movement NIDA, and they were arrested as the group was engaged in organizing protests against non-combat military deaths in the Azerbaijani armed forces. In May 2014, they were convicted on charges of preparation for a crime, mass disorder, and acquisition or storage of explosive substances.

Sentenced to between seven and eight years, all four of the applicants were eventually released early. Gurbanli and Mammadli were pardoned in December of that year, while Hasanov and Akhundov were pardoned in March 2016.

The European Court found that authorities had provided no evidence of the alleged crimes and in public statements had implied a connection between NIDA’s activism and illegal activities.

“The totality of the above-mentioned facts and circumstances, taken together with the most recent reports and opinions made by various international human rights instances about the crackdown on civil society activists, including the applicants, indicates that the actual purpose of the impugned measures was to silence and punish the applicants for their active social and political engagement and their activities in NIDA,” the court’s decision reads.

Ilkin Rustamzadeh, another NIDA member convicted at the same trial in 2014, remains in prison.

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