Open letter to Mr. H.E Heydar Aliev, President of the Republic of Azerbaijan

Open Letter

Mr. President,

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) is quite concerned about the serious human rights violations that continue to persist in Azerbaijan regarding, in particular, the right to a fair trial as well as the freedom of the press and of expression.

These violations are taking place in the midst of a particularly tense political situation. The bitter discussions currently surrounding the draft law on the rewriting of the electoral code, which provides for greater transparency and intends to fight against all forms of manipulation, are illustrative of the eroding political climate in Azerbaijan. This situation follows the referendum held on 24 August 2002 which granted greater power to the executive and is part of the new campaign for the Presidential elections scheduled for October 2003. The recent denigration campaigns launched by the high authorities against Human Rights NGOs, accused of "betraying the nation’s interests," "being unpatriotic," and "pro-Armenian," further demonstrate the serious political tensions prevailing in the country. Those who criticize the authorities are perceived as "enemies" and speaking of political pluralism is widely suppressed.

Trials Brought Against Political Opponents

The year 2002 was marked by a large number of trials brought against political opponents. The trial against three members of the Adalet Party who, according to information received from the Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan, were accused of "hooliganism" on the basis of Article 221.1 of the criminal code after opposing police forces, is one in particular that can be mentioned. On 13 February 2002, they were sentenced to one and a half years imprisonment. Hadjiaga Nuriyev, a member of the Islamist Party, was accused of attempted corruption and resisting police forces. On 18 March 2002, he received a suspended prison sentence of one and a half years. Farida Kunqurova, a native of Armenia and a member of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party, was accused of "hooliganism," and on 17 July 2002, she was sentenced to three years imprisonment. Accusations of "hooliganism" are frequently used to silence opponents.

Four trials were held in 2002 against several "young Moujahidins" who were accused of having received military training in Georgia with the intention of aiding Chechens combat Russian forces. They were sentenced to prison from one to four years and some were placed on bail and restricted from leaving the territory. As for one of them, considered to be the leader of the group, he was sentenced to five years of prison. All of this seems to indicate that these trials were politically motivated by the need to demonstrate Azerbaijan’s participation in the fight against international terrorism.

All of these trials were carried out in violation of the right to a fair trial as guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, both of which were ratified by Azerbaijan.

Furthermore, many trials are waiting for a decision or were interrupted. This mainly concerns the trials that were reopened before the Appeal Court for three prisoners recognized as "political prisoners" by the Council of Europe in accordance with resolution 1272: Alakram Hummatov, Isgander Hamidov and Rahim Qaziyev. To date, no decision has been pronounced in these trials opened 24 January, 29 May and 21 June, respectively. Moreover, Alakram Hummatov went on hunger strike in December to protest the slowness of the proceedings. I. Hamidov’s trial was interrupted 6 September 2002 without any explanation. This delay constitutes a violation of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights regarding the right to a fair trial which states that everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law.

In addition, the FIDH enquiry report resulting from the judicial observation of these three prisoners’ trials, published in November 2002, stressed the irregularities which hindered the smooth proceedings of these trials. The rights of the defendant were not only infringed upon (it was impossible for the lawyers to meet with their client, no confidentiality was ensured...), but the openness of the debates as well (access for both the families and the lawyers to the trials was difficult because they were carried out in the prisons…).

Finally, these prisoners’ conditions of detention remain precarious. Currently, Hammidov is residing in a prison reserved for former military personnel and police officers. As for Hummatov and Qaziyez, they are being held in Qobustan prison. Their prison system is very strict and sentences them to isolation. In fact, under the pretext of protecting their physical integrity, these two prisoners have been locked up alone, in closed cells at night, which prevents them from receiving medical assistance throughout the night in the case a problem should arise. Furthermore, these prisoners are permitted to receive six phone calls and four visits from their family members per year.

In this respect, the Council of Europe’s delegation to the Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, during its visit from 24 November to 6 December 2002, denounced the poor treatment generally inflicted upon prisoners by law enforcement officials as well as the conditions of detention. On this occasion, the delegation counted several cases of tuberculosis.

Trials Surrounding the Events in Nardaran

Several trials following June’s events in Nardaran were opened in 2002 and are still in progress today. In fact, in June 2002, a protest movement in Nardaran sparked by economic and social demands was violently suppressed. Nearly twenty people were arrested, one protester died and others were wounded. More protests followed suit and new waves of arrests took place in September 2002 then in February 2003.

The chairman of the Association of the Baku and Villages, Djebrayil Alizade, one of the leaders of the Nardaran movement, was arrested in September and sentenced on 22 September to three months in prison on the sole basis of two police officers’ statements.

According to information from the Azerbaijan National Committee of Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly and the Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan, the trial for fifteen residents of Nardaran arrested in June began on 25 December 2002 and a date for the first hearing was set for 8 January. The trial is in progress. The accusations are based on the organization of and participation in activities disturbing the peace, hooliganism (articles 220.1 and 233 of the criminal code) and the resistance of law enforcement authorities (article 315.1). The prisoners’ conditions of detention are precarious and only five of them have received legal representation. On 1 April 2003 the Court has sentenced four of the detainees to 5 to 9 years imprisonment. Among those who were sentenced: Djebrayil Alizade and Alikram Aliyev, leader of the Azeri Islamist Party, whose alarming health condition were denounced in the November 2002 FIDH’s report. The other eleven persons have benefited from 2 to 3 years suspended prison sentence.

A second trial opened on 25 December against Hafiz Atakishieyev, another protestor arrested in June. The trial was held as a closed hearing and the prisoner could not receive legal representation. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment during the first legal proceedings. On 29 January, his sentence was reduced to three years by the Appeal Court after the discovery that false charges had been brought against him (illegal possession of drugs and weapons).

On 5 February 2003 in Nardaran, the police forcefully entered tents that had been set up in the center square of the village and from which sit-ins were regularly being held since the events began. Between 80 and 100 masked policemen attacked the peaceful protestors with batons and the butt of their automatic weapons. Claiming to have found some of the protestors armed, the police opened fire and wounded several of them. 15 persons have been injured and eight new individuals accused of having been involved in June’s events were arrested. On 3 March 2003, the Court of Sabunchu gave these eight residents a suspended prison sentence of 3 and 2 years. They have been released. The cases have been brought before the Court of Appeal which must respect article 6 of the ECHR which deals with the right to a fair trial.

In addition to violations of proceedings such as the absence of legal representation and false charges, it must also be pointed out that no independent investigation was opened to identify those responsible for the violence perpetrated against the civil population on 3 June. Moreover, neither the death of Alihasan Agayev in June nor the tortures inflicted upon Mirzaga Movlamov during his imprisonment, in particular, underwent independent investigation. Penal, civil and administrative sanctions need to be ordered and the victims as well as their families must be indemnified.

Infringements of the Freedom of the Press

Furthermore, serious infringements of the freedom of the press as guaranteed by article 50 of the Constitution of 1995 continue to be perpetrated. There have been numerous instances of harassment and pressures carried out by the Azerbaijani authorities against independent media organizations and journalists. Everyday, several journalists are threatened by the authorities and quite often find themselves without their working tools; the authorities do not hesitate to destroy their computer equipment.

On 28 January 2003, the authorities, on the order of the capital’s municipal government, shut down a newsstand belonging to the Gaya distribution company that was selling opposition magazines outside Baka State University that were not available at State-owned newsstands. Over recent months, nearly a dozen of this company’s newsstands in total have been shut down.

But, above all, between 4 and 26 November 2002, twelve libel suits were brought against Rauf Arifoglu, the editor-in-chief of Yeni Musavat, by Azerbaijani officials and businessmen. These attacks followed this newspaper’s publication of an article discussing the charges being brought against President Aliyev’s family by a businessman in the United States. The charges against the newspaper are aimed at closing it down, confiscating its property and awarding very high damages. On 22 and 28 January, several journalists and human rights defenders went on a hunger strike to protest the legal harassment being suffered by this newspaper.

What is more, on 25 November 2002, Irada Huseynova, a journalist and correspondent with the weekly newspaper, Bakinsky Bulvar, was arrested and sued for libel by Calal Aliyev, a member of the Parliament and President Aliyev’s brother. She was given a suspended prison sentence of one year.

Together, these violations do not comply with the international and regional commitments that were ratified over recent years by Azerbaijan such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane and Degrading Treatment as well as the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights, which entered into effect 15 April 2002, and the European Convention against Torture.

FIDH is calling for the highest authorities to guarantee in all circumstances:
fundamental freedoms such as the freedom of expression, of opinion and the press as well as the right to participate in political life
the impartiality and independence of the judiciary so that any person arbitrarily imprisoned or sentenced can enjoy the right to a fair trial and effective grounds of action
the end to acts of torture and poor treatment perpetrated in detention centers
the opening of an independent investigation so as to identify those responsible for the violence perpetrated by law enforcement officials against the civil population in Nardaran as well as to grant the appropriate reparations to the victims

In regard to the trial of the three political prisoners, I. Hamidov, A. Hummatov and R. Qaziyev, FIDH reiterates the recommendations it formulated at the end of its mission of inquiry and asks, in particular, that they be judged within a reasonable period of time and in accordance with the norms and principles applicable to this matter.

Sidiki Kaba
FIDH President

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