Azerbaijani authorities are using spurious drug possession charges to lock up political activists critical of the government, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch documented four recent cases, in three of which the detainees alleged ill-treatment in police custody.
“Using bogus drug possession charges to silence critical voices is not new, but the latest cases are part of an intensified government campaign against its critics as elections grow near,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These arrests and beatings send a very clear message to anyone who wants to engage in serious activism.”
Theauthorities should conduct independent and effective inquiries into the ill-treatment allegations and release the activists, pending independent review of the charges, Human Rights Watch said.
The arrests of the four activists, between March and May 2013, are part of a crackdown on civil society in Azerbaijan that began in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and has intensified as the country’s presidential election in October grows nearer.
Over the last two years, Azerbaijani authorities have arrested dozens of activists, journalists, and human rights defenders on questionable or no evidence, and accused them of various drug or weapons possession, hooliganism, and disturbance of public order offenses. Between August 2011 and May 2012 police arrested at least five journalists and human rights defenders on bogus drug charges.
Through interviews with lawyers and relatives, Human Rights Watch obtained detailed information about the four recent cases:
- The May 9 arrest and subsequent ill-treatment of Rashad Ramazanov (Rashad Hagigat Agaaddin), 31, a well-known blogger, who actively criticized the Azerbaijani government on Facebook and other social media;
- The March 31 arrest and subsequent ill-treatment of Taleh Bagirov, 29, an religious scholar and activist, shortly after he gave a sermon criticizing the Azerbaijani government and President Ilham Aliyev specifically;
- The March 26 arrest of Dashgin Malikov, 22, an activist with the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party. The arrest followed several postings on Facebook and other social media in which Malikov criticized the government; and
- The March 7 arrest and subsequent ill-treatment of Mahammad Azizov, 21, an activist with the NIDA youth movement.
In each of the four cases, drug possession charges were based on a small amount of narcotics allegedly discovered by the police following the arrest. The police said they found the drugs in detainees’ pockets or wallets during a search at the police station or, in Azizov’s case, during the search of his apartment. The detainees’ lawyers were not present during the searches and could not gain access to their clients for several days following their arrest.
Three of the men were asked no questions about the drug possession charges during interrogations, their lawyers told Human Rights Watch. Azizov and Bagirov were questioned about their political activities. Bagirov was questioned about his public statements and asked who ordered and paid for his last speech, his lawyer said.
None of the accused is a drug user, their lawyers said. In the one case in which authorities carried out a drug test, it was negative. On another case, drug test results are pending.
Lawyers for Ramazanov, Bagirov, and Azizov told Human Rights Watch that when they finally managed to visit their clients in detention, the men said that the police had beaten them. The lawyers said they observed bruises and wounds on their client’s faces.
In all four cases, the court sent the accused to pre-trial custody – Azizov, Bagirov, and Malikov for two months and Ramazanov for three months. In Azizov’s case they extended the detention for another two months and in Bagirov’s case for another month. The authorities did not allow the defendants to have their lawyers present at the court hearings. Instead, state-appointed lawyers participated in the hearings.
The denial of access to a lawyer of one’s choosing is a direct violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, article 14.3) and ofthe European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR, article 6.3 (c)). Azerbaijan is a party to both. Ill-treatment in detention is also unequivocally prohibitedby both treaties and under customary international law.
“These men are obviously at risk of further mistreatment in custody,” Gogia said. “The authorities should promptly investigate their allegations of ill-treatment and make sure that the detainees have unimpeded access to their lawyersand to an independent doctor.”