Hilal Mamedov, who is currently on trial in Baku on charges of spying for Iran, fuelling inter-ethnic hatred, and illegal possession of drugs, has been awarded the Azerbaijan Institute of Peace and Democracy’s Isakhan Ashurov Prize in recognition of his human rights engagement. Meanwhile, the court proceedings were adjourned last week after the prosecution’s key witness failed to appear to face questions from Mamedov’s lawyers.
Mamedov, 53, is a member of Azerbaijan’s Talysh minority and editor in chief of a weekly newspaper in the Talysh language named “Tolyshi sado” (Talysh World). He was arrested in Baku last June, shortly after a video clip was posted on YouTube of him singing in Russian, to a traditional Talysh melody, the refrain “Who the hell are you? Why don’t you get lost?” The clip went viral across Russia.
A subsequent search of Mamedov’s apartment yielded a small quantity of heroin which his family and the Baku human rights community are convinced was planted by police.
According to Rafiq Jalilov, co-chair of a committee formed last summer to defend Mamedov’s rights, the espionage charge against him is based exclusively on testimony by Elman Quliyev. Quliyev had been arrested in 2007 together with Mamedov’s predecessor as editor of “Tolyshi sado,” the literary scholar Novruzali Mamedov (the two Mamedovs are not related). Quliyev and Novruzali Mamedov were sentenced in 2008, Quliyev for six years on treason charges and Mamedov for 10 years on charges of espionage for Iran. Mamedov died in jail the following year.
Testifying on March 6 at Hilal Mamedov’s trial, Quliyev said he had a five-hour conversation with Mamedov in a Baku tea-house in 2006 during which Mamedov said in the presence of two other men that he had contacts in Iran with whose help he was working to undermine Azerbaijan’s state sovereignty. (The Talysh are an Iranian ethnic group living on both sides of Azerbaijan’s southern border with Iran.)
But the two purported witnesses to that conversation, both now living abroad, have provided written depositions denying having been present, according to Halil Bagirov, one of Mamedov’s lawyers. Bagirov also points out that during his trial in 2008, Quliyev said he did not know Hilal Mamedov.
Quliyev was in jail at the time of Hilal Mamedov’s arrest in late June but has since been released prior to completion of his sentence. His current whereabouts, and why he failed to show up in court on March 27, are not known.
Speaking last week at the formal presentation of the Isakhan Ashurov prize to another of Mamedov’s lawyers, Leyla Yunus, who heads the Institute of Peace and Democracy, explained that Mamedov was selected as the first recipient because of all Azerbaijan’s human rights campaigners, journalists, and lawyers, he is currently in the most difficult situation. She characterized Mamedov as a man who always sought to defend human rights despite the pressure and threats to which he was subjected.
The Isakhan Ashurov prize is named after a former Interior Ministry investigator who fell foul of the Azerbaijani authorities in 1994 and was jailed on grounds of “exceeding his authority.” On his release two years later, Ashurov began representing political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. He died last year after a long illness.
Also last week, the Talysh Cultural Center decided to resume publication of “Tolyshi sado” in both Talysh and Azeri. According to Jalilov, publication was suspended in June 2011 when Hilal Mamedov was first subjected to “pressure” from persons he (Mamedov) declined to name.