After toying with the idea of introducing jury trials, the Azerbaijani government now has dropped the initiative altogether, choosing to keep the court system to itself.
For a country that now chairs the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the continent’s main human-rights body, that might seem a strange move. But government-supporters say they do not trust lay citizens’ judgment in matters of law,. Critics counter that the government just doesn’t want to let go of its grip on the judiciary system.
MP Ali Huseynli, representing the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, allegedly sees jury systems as a Western thingamajigy that doesn’t work in this former Soviet republic. “Jurors are mainly people who do not have a law education and, therefore, often they cannot make legal judgments,” Huseynli commented as he and his fellow lawmakers axed the jury-amendment from a bill on courts and judges last week.
Prosecutors, he added, had advised against introducing the jury system.
Critics counter that the real issue is that juries and jurors would mean more work for prosecutors and more room for court independence. “The practice [of jury trials] would have ended politically motivated prosecutions of citizens on fabricated charges,” commented lawyer Namizad Safarov, Contact.az reported. The jury-system proposal stemmed from the influence of international organizations, he added, calling the decision to ditch the amendment “another step away from democracy.”
The Azerbaijani government has never been celebrated for its sense of irony. Yet even as it settles into its chair at the Council of Europe's Commission of Ministers and assures the world that it's got that democracy thing down pat, Baku appears to be busy cracking the whip.
Most recently, with a demand for lengthy prison sentences for three imprisoned civil-rights activists -- deemed political prisoners by international human-rights groups -- and by the May 19 arrest of three Jehovah's Witnesses.
But perhaps Council of Europe Secretary-General Thorbjørn Jagland got the full story. Jagland spent May 20-21 in Baku for the official kickoff of an "action plan" intended to help Azerbaijan meet its CoE obligations and "address some fundamental human rights and rule of law issues," as the document states.
On May 21, prosecutors addressed those issues in their own way -- by requesting prison sentences of between six to nine years for civil-society activists Anar Mammadli, Bashir Suleymanli and Elnur Mammadov, charged, after critical monitoring of the 2013 presidential election, with alleged violation of NGO-registration rules and abuse of their official duties.
As it kicked off the final countdown to its chairmanship of the Council of Europe's Commission of Ministers, Azerbaijan on May 6 sentenced eight youth activists to lengthy jail terms for allegedly organizing mass disturbances and possessing narcotics and weapons.
The group, detained in 2013 after attempting to organize a protest, were sentenced to between seven to eight years in prison, RFE/RL reported. Their sentencing sparked clashes between supporters and police, two of whom could be seen carrying off a protester upside down in a photo posted on Facebook by sympathizers. Dozens allegedly were arrested.
Apparently seeing no irony in its choice of timing, Baku today also announced the priorities for its six-month CoE role, which starts on May 14. The official to-do list includes a few items championed as well by the imprisoned youth activists -- namely "the fight against corruption" and "education on human rights." Also included are the less controversial priorities of "social issues, [the] multiculturalism inherent in Azerbaijan and education. . ." according to the APA news agency.
Deputy Foreign Minister Mahmud Mammadguliyev announced.
Azerbaijan's arrest of a respected human-rights activist is fuelling fears that the country is pulling out all the stops on crushing dissent before it takes over the Council of Europe's Commission of Ministers next month.
Fifty-eight-year-old Leyla Yunus, who chairs the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy, and her husband, Arif Yunus, were detained in the Baku airport late on April 28 as they were about to depart for Doha, Qatar.
The reasons for their detention were not made known, but, after an interrogation on April 29, investigators reversed course and released Leyla Yunus, Trend news agency reported. (Yunus' spouse earlier had been hospitalized with heart problems.) The similarly pro-government APA agency added, however, that her office would be searched anyway. The information has not yet been confirmed, but any memory of prosecutors' actions is not likely to fade away fast . In a video published by RFE/RL's Azeri-language service and widely distributed on Facebook, Yunus, who has 30 years of rights and peace advocacy behind her, was shown defying police officers after they searched her apartment. She claimed the police did not present her with a warrant, nor explain the reasons for her arrest.
Yunus said they would not let her use the bathroom after her detention and, when finally so permitted, a male police officer went in with her. “He followed me into the toilet and stood there watching me… get him on camera!” Yunus yelled, taking the individual's police hat and throwing it to the ground.
Imprisoned Azerbaijani youth activists and their mothers on April 24 entered the fifth day of a hunger strike intended to protest the activists' detention in prison, pending trial, for over a year.
“Our hunger strike is first of all an act of solidarity with our children, who are facing prison sentences,” Kavkazsky Uzel news site quoted Sakina Qurbanova, whose son, Zaur Qurbanli and seven fellow young government critics, have been awaiting trial since last year. “This is a desperate move. Perhaps at least now the authorities hear our voice and they will put a stop to this injustice,” Qurbanova went on saying.
The activists, most of them members of the NIDA (exclamation mark) civil rights movement, were arrested in 2013 on hooliganism, drug abuse and procession of firearms charges. Human-rights groups have dismissed the accusations, which are often levied against young dissenters in Azerbaijan. The prosecutors also accused the group of plotting an armed uprising -- another standard claim -- but the activists' supporters and lawyers maintain that the youths only planned a peaceful rally.
Amnesty International, a frequent critic of Azerbaijan, accused the Azerbaijani authorities of torturing the prisoners, inventing charges against them, and demanded the group's immediate release. On April 22, police dispersed a rally in support of the arrested activists.
Despite mounting concerns over their health, both the activists and their mothers pledged to continue their strike until the authorities drop their charges.
There is virtually no space for opposition in Azerbaijan’s parliament, but the government often appears happy to provide room for its rivals in prison. Some prominent faces from the country's drubbed-into-a-corner opposition were handed prison sentences on March 17 on controversial charges of inciting riots in a provincial town last year.
A court in the northeastern city of Sheki sentenced Tofi Yagublu, deputy chairperson of the Musavat Party, and Ilgar Mammadov, leader of the Republican Alternative (ReAl) rights group*, to five and seven years in jail, respectively. The court found the two guilty of sparking riots in Ismayilli, where thousands last January took to the streets, burning a hotel and laying siege to the local governor’s office. The government responded with sending riot police and keeping the city in a lockdown for several days.
Yagublu and Mammadov counter that they trekked out to Ismayilli to support the protesters and arrived when the unrest, sparked by a traffic accident involving the son of a cabinet minister, was already in full rage. Nevertheless, the Sheki court turned a deaf ear to the protests from defense lawyers, as well as local and international rights groups.
Azerbaijani investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova has been branded in her homeland as being everything and anything -- a woman of loose morals, a spy, or, worse, an Armenian -- to change the subject from the signs of high-level wrongdoing she exposes. Her latest exposé has been followed by an accusation of leaking state secrets to a delegation of supposed US spies that Azerbaijan’s state-controlled media claims visited Baku to collect intelligence in broad daylight.
Azerbaijani prosecutors, though, did not evince much interest in the revelation of an alleged act of blackmail by the government. It is the exposure of such blackmail that seems to count as a transgression. After Ismayilova made public documents implicating security agencies in recruiting opposition party members as informers and agents provocateurs, the Ministry of National Security launched an investigation into the potential leakage of a state secret.
For Ismayilova, the summons came as a long-awaited confirmation of the authenticity of the documents, which suggested that the national security ministry used bribes and secret recordings of opposition members' private lives to infiltrate the opposition camp. “Since the prosecutor’s office launched an investigation into the disclosure of state secrets, that means that this document is real,” she told the Russian service of the BBC.
Investigators, she said, have pressured her to disclose who provided her with the documents. Her refusal to comply may result in a six-month prison sentence.
Police escorted Zeynalov and his wife, Sevda Nur Arslan, a Turkish citizen, to the airport on February 9 after officials deemed his presence in Turkey “detrimental to public security,” Today’s Zaman reported. Zeynalov claims that he had linked to news reports from his Twitter account about the corruption scandal targeting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government, which is notoriously thin-skinned toward public criticism.
At the request of the prime minister’s office, Turkish security agencies traced the tweets to Zeynalov’s account. Erdoğan filed a criminal complaint against Zeynalov, accusing him of stoking “hatred and animosity."
The December 16 arrest of well-known Azerbaijani democratization watcher Anar Mammadli has become the latest move in what critics call the Azerbaijani government’s ongoing war against civil activism and political dissent. But where Western democracy activists see the government trampling of civil society, some claim that many Western officials see only gas and oil.
Mammadli, who chairs the Baku-based Center for Election Monitoring and Democracy, documented cases of various violations in this October's presidential election, which brought a third encore for President Ilham Aliyev’s ten-year rule. His criticism of the last election included the post-election crackdown on dissenting media, and was picked up by international news outlets and cited by international watchdogs.
The charges against him, though, are not the usual favorites of drug possession or abuse -- crimes that tend to affect government critics in particular, according to Azerbaijani police -- but charges of tax evasion and an "illegal business activity," RFE/RL reported.
Aliyev's Yeni Azerbaijan Party has slammed Mammadli for supposedly slanderous attacks on the presidential administration and, ironically, for his “authoritarian methods of governance” of his own organization.
Parliament member Jeyhun Osmanli alleged that Mammadli, his office and its sponsors – the American-run National Democratic Institute and the European Commission -- are part of a conspiracy against the Azerbaijani government.
It’s not new that Facebook can be a dangerous thing. And not just for social faux pas.
Users who do not mince their posts can lose their jobs.Including in Azerbaijan, where a well-respected Baku State University historian, Altay Goyusov, claims that he had been asked to resign after expressing criticism of the university’s administration and the Azerbaijani authorities on his Facebook profile.
Goyusov’s cover photo shows police arresting Ilgar Mammadov*, an outspoken government critic and civil-society activist accused of helping stoke riots this January in the town of Ismayili. A photo caption calls for Mammadov's freedom.
The rector of Baku State University, Abel Megaramov, however, has denied the accusation, telling RadioAzadlig that he thought Goyusov was using the story as a means to "acquire political asylum in America."
After a long business trip to the US, he claimed, Goyusov "started to forget his national feelings" and, supposedly, began shirking work. He denied that he had been dismissed.
In response to the report, some of Goyusov’s students staged a protest and threatened to boycott classes. Goyusov thanked his students for their support, but requested them to go back to their classes. Several faculty members also spoke up for their colleague.