“Those who defend human rights, and political prisoners and report on election fraud and corruption are considered criminals in Azerbaijan. [So,] I am one of those criminals. Do not worry for me. Please, help other political prisoners suffering in jails.”
These are the words of Azerbaijan’s most respectful human rights defender Intigam Aliyev to his colleagues in early August when he was detained on trumped up tax-related criminal charges. As the pace of arrests of government critics had dramatically intensified in summer, Intigam had told me that he was seriously contemplating the prospect of soon landing in jail.
A passionate advocate for protecting the most vulnerable of our society, Intigam is widely referred as the symbol of an unbreakable commitment to human rights. He has provided human rights trainings for grassroots activists, lawyers across the country, briefed on human rights in various European institutions and has given voice to victims of human rights abuses. As chair of the Legal Education Society, Intigam was a legal counsel for dozens of cases against Azerbaijan before the European Court of Human Rights.
Today, Intigam is celebrating his 52th birthday in Kurdekhani Prison – a name synonymous with the system of injustice that prevails in Azerbaijan. This notorious prison holds some of Azerbaijan’s most talented and remarkable figures; seeking democratic reform, uncovering corruption, reporting election irregularities or defending human rights victims. They are veteran human rights defenders, bloggers, Western-educated youth activists, lawyers, public figures, journalists and others who, in a society that lacks a free press, dare to practice free expression. What many of these “criminals” have in common is a history of being outspoken on the human rights abuses. They were sentenced on cooked-up charges, including hooliganism, tax evasion, treason, and weaponry or drug possession.
Among more than 90 political prisoners that languish today in Azerbaijan jails, there are several prisoners of conscience who are elderly or infirm or got sick from prison conditions and received inadequate treatment. You can pick out names almost at random and be outraged. Intigam as well as his colleagues Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif are in their 50s and suffer from a number of serious medical conditions, which have been deteriorating in prison, where adequate and accessible care is often rejected by authorities.
Or take other sorrow stories. Many families of political prisoners struggle on without their loved ones or living in conditions of economic hardship after losing a wage-earner. Central European University (CEU) alumnus and prominent youth activist Rashadat Akhundov, who faces 8 years of imprisonment since March 2013, has experienced particularly difficult family circumstances since his arrest. In May 2013, Akhundov’s wife gave birth to the couple’s only son, who has not seen his father that is still behind bars. Then tragically, in September 2013, Akhundov’s 74-year-old grandfather, who had raised him like a father, committed suicide after learning about the harsher charges filed against his grandson.
These days, the echo of the old Soviet times has become alarmingly strong in Azerbaijan. Human rights activism doesn’t go unpunished. The country has lately undergone well-documented shift in terms of political tendency, which have resulted in a rolling back to the Soviet past. The Stalinist repressions have returned the government critics to a situation, which is to a large extent similar to the Soviet period, when dissidents fought against lawlessness and arbitrariness at their own peril. Since summer, the government is certainly moving in that direction with the behavior in the best of Soviet traditions.
Government harassment campaigns have primarily targeted human rights defenders, journalists, youth activists and lawyers in retaliation for their work. While some of them now are locked in detention, others ceased their human rights work, left the country to avoid arrest, or went into hiding as the crackdown mounted since August.
As a relic of Soviet-era repression, many activists – predominantly pro-opposition NGO activists – as well as some members of political opposition parties, and journalists have been barred from leaving Azerbaijan. In all cases, the authorities have not even tried to offer credible reasons for these travel bans, which are often seen as a preventative measure to stop the activists from participating in international conferences or performing their activities abroad. Opposition party members continue to be regularly subjected to arbitrary arrests and sentenced to long term detention for trumped up charges of "hooliganism", “swearing in public” or “drug possession.” Defense lawyers, who often face politically motivated disciplinary and criminal sanctions, hesitate to take on "political cases" out of fear of getting disbarred from the pro-governmental Collegium of Advocates and subsequently losing their license. Three lawyers lately have been effectively sidelined from establishing defense for political prisoners. Another lawyer was arrested last week on hooliganism charges.
Oil-rich Azerbaijan is teetering on the brink of a human rights crisis, with producing new political prisoners on a host of flimsy charges and creating horrible human rights environment. As long as the international statements of concern on rights situation in Azerbaijan is not followed by any real consequences, merely the stern words will remain hollow and useless. Sustained pressure is the only way to move forward against its government, which has been so dogged in continuing political prisoner carousel for more than a decade. International partners should not give in fatigue, and urge Intigam and other victims of abuses of the paralyzed justice system, who should never have been imprisoned in the first place, to be immediately released.
Vugar Gojayev is an Azerbaijani researcher and freelance journalist.
The views are the author's own and do not represent those of Radio Azadliq