By Mina Muradova (06/04/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On May 26, Azerbaijani authorities sentenced the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDSC) Chairman, Anar Mammadli, to five-and-a-half years in prison on highly questionable charges ranging from tax evasion and illegal entrepreneurship to abuse of office. The authorities also convicted the organization’s executive director, Bashir Suleymanli, to three-and-a-half years and the head of a partner NGO called International Cooperation of Volunteers, Elnur Mammadov, who got a two-year suspended sentence. Addressing the judge, Mammadli expressed his opinion on the sentence by saying: “Just abuse Femida and let's get this over with.”
Prior to the verdict, Mammadli delivered his closing speech and said: “Azerbaijan will chair Council of Europe’s Council of Ministers for the next six months. Atletico Madrid carries an ‘Azerbaijan Land of Fire’ sign on their T-shirts. These could be good promotions for our country. However, unfortunately, our country is to be known not as a ‘land of fire’ but as a ‘Land of political prisoners’ instead.”
Mammadli was accused of engaging in illegal entrepreneurship without creating a legal entity, while he stated that he was acting as an individual taxpayer. On May 14, 2008, the court annulled the registration of Mammadli’s first organization - the Elections Monitoring Center. The founders and members of the EMC then established a new organization – EMDS. Despite two appeals to the Ministry of Justice, the government “illegally and groundlessly” refused to recognize the union, Mammadli said.
Isabel Santos, the chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions, expressed concern on May 28 that Mammadli’s “only crime” may have been his work to defend the rights of his country’s voters. “The Azerbaijani government’s systematic targeting of civil society has reached a new low with the sentencing of Anar Mammadli,” Santos said. “His conviction and sentencing represents an affront to OSCE values in the sphere of human rights and democratic commitments.” The U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan termed the convictions “a major setback to Azerbaijan’s democratic development.”
Oktay Gulaliyev, head of the Public Alliance “Azerbaijan without political prisoners” noted that the recent repressions against journalists and civil society activists proves that the authorities have intensified the repression against alternative voices. Apart from three election observers, there were recent arrests of journalist and bloggers, youth activists and human rights defenders. In early May, the Baku Court of Grave Crimes sentenced eight young Azerbaijani activists, most of whom were members of the NIDA civic movement promoting democracy, human rights, and rule of law, to between six and eight years of imprisonment. In 2013, they were involved in a series of peaceful protests against the deaths of young soldiers in non-combat situations.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there are 10 cases of journalists in detention or prison on “politically motivated” charges in Azerbaijan. In addition, five bloggers are currently behind bars.
“The number of political prisoners in Azerbaijan is so great that they have been sorted into groups: prisoners of ‘hijab’, prisoners of ‘Eurovision’, etc.” - Gulaliyev said during a June 4 conference on the problem of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. The number of prisoners with politically-motivated charges is assessed to between 150 and 170.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Mammadli's detention adds to the concerning human rights backdrop for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s annual session in Baku next month. I hope that our presence there will encourage the judicial system to take a hard look at its record on OSCE commitments and signal that these violations will not go unnoticed,” Santos said.
The 23rd Annual Session of the OSCE PA will take place in Azerbaijan’s capital from June 28 to July 2, 2014. Mammadli was a key speaker at briefings for the OSCE PA’s observation delegation in October 2013, on the eve of Azerbaijan's presidential election. The Centre’s statement on that election noted extensive violations of fundamental freedoms and a range of other shortcomings in the electoral process, many of which were also observed and reported by the OSCE.
Mubariz Gurbanli, a senior figure in the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party, could not see any connection between Mammadli’s activities and his arrest soon afterwards. “This case should not be politicized. Elections in Azerbaijan were transparent, free and democratic … This court case was pursued because the [EMDS] organization broke the law,” he told RFE/RL.
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, commenting on the issue during a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels last January, reiterated his position that no political prisoners exist in his country. He said that a resolution on the existence of political prisoners in Azerbaijan was voted down by a majority of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly last year and noted that neither the Council of Europe nor the European Parliament has yet agreed on the definition of a political prisoner.