European Court orders Azerbaijan to provide detained economist with medical assistance, in latest case regarding care of political prisoners

31 January 2024
European Court orders Azerbaijan to provide detained economist with medical assistance, in latest case regarding care of political prisoners

On 5 September 2023, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ordered Azerbaijan’s Government to take urgent measures to protect the health of Gubad Ibadoghlu, an economist and government critic who it detained in July.

The Court’s decision follows a Rule 39 request, submitted by EHRAC and our partner lawyer Zibeyde Sadigova, following a dramatic deterioration in Ibadoghlu’s health since he was placed in pre-trial detention on politically-motivated charges.

Prior to our request, Ibadoghlu had been refused access to an independent doctor. He had run out of vital medication which was supplied by his family, and was denied appropriate treatment for his chronic health conditions. He had developed a number of serious new health conditions while in detention.

Following the Court’s decision, the Azerbaijani authorities arranged for medical examinations to establish the state of Ibadoghlu’s health – specifically whether he was suffering from a heart condition – and improved monitoring of his health in prison.

Toby Collis, Lawyer, EHRAC, said: “In granting our request for interim measures, the Court recognised that Azerbaijan’s treatment of Gubad Ibadoghlu, a vocal critic of the government facing spurious charges, had failed to take account of the serious health conditions from which he suffers, putting him at risk of inhuman and degrading treatment.

“While the Court’s decision is welcome in terms of safeguarding Gubad’s health, this case provides further evidence of Azerbaijan’s recent record of mistreating political prisoners, which it must address.”

Since the Court’s Rule 39 ruling, EHRAC, with its domestic partners Zibeyda Sadigova, Shahla Humbatova and Samed Rahimli have submitted two applications to the Court. Our first application relates to Ibadoglu’s lack of medical treatment in detention – which we argued amounted to inhuman treatment – and the lack of effective remedies to improve his medical care in custody. Our second application relates to his arrest and detention – we argued this was arbitrary and for an improper purpose (silencing him), and that the searches of his office and house were illegal and violated his right to private life.

Azerbaijan’s detention of Gubad Ibadoghlu

Gubad Ibadoghlu is the Chairman of the Azerbaijani Democracy and Prosperity Movement. He has worked for the United Nations and World Bank, and has held academic positions in Poland, Hungary, the UK and the United States. His academic research focuses on the extractive industries and the links between corruption and authoritarianism. He has lived in exile since 2015, having been threatened with criminal investigation following a 2014 crackdown on civil society groups.

In June 2023, Ibadoghlu returned to Azerbaijan to visit his sick mother – his first visit to the country in two years. Shortly before visiting, he announced the creation of the Azerbaijan Youth Education Foundation, a UK-based charity which aims to provide scholarships to students from the country. Ibadoghlu said that the scholarships would, in part, be funded by the recovery of money stolen from the Azerbaijani people and economy by Azerbaijani nationals.

On 23 July, Ibadoghlu and his wife set out to drive to the city of Sumgayit, 30 kilometres north of Baku, to meet activists. The couple were followed by four cars, one of which rammed their vehicle. Around 20 plain-clothed police officers then forced the couple into police cars.

Ibadoghlu was accused of supplying counterfeit US dollars to a man, Anar Aliyev, who had been detained by police two days earlier. A search that evening of an office owned by Ibadoghlu resulted in the ‘discovery’ of a bag which the authorities claimed contained counterfeit currency.

The following day, Ibadoghlu was charged with the production, acquisition or sale of counterfeit money by an organised group. Ibadoghlu has denied the charges, says he has never met Aliyev, and believes the counterfeit currency was planted, adding that he hadn’t used that office for years. If convicted, he could face a prison sentence of up to 12 years. He was later charged with possession of extremist materials, allegedly related to the works of Fethullah Gülen, the Turkish opposition figure. He denies ever possessing these materials.

Both prior to and after his arrest, Ibadoghlu was the subject of a Government smear campaign about his education foundation and supposed links to the Gülenist movement.

Pre-trial detention and the impact on Ibadoghlu’s health

Ibadoghlu remains in pre-trial detention. At the time of his arrest, he was already suffering from a number of health conditions, including Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. In the weeks following the initial hearing, Ibadoghlu’s lawyer, Zibeyde Sadigova, filed court appeals and motions, arguing that house arrest or release on guarantee were more appropriate options, as her client was likely to suffer further, irreversible damage to his health in prison. These appeals were rejected, with multiple courts refusing to consider the significant potential impact of detention on Ibadoghlu’s health. 

Before his detention, Ibadoghlu was taking nine medications a day.  In prison, he has had to rely on medication supplied by his family. His request to retain a supply of insulin in his cell was rejected, leading to delays in the drug being administered.  His blood sugar levels have increased rapidly, to dangerous levels, and his need for insulin has also increased dramatically. His eyesight has deteriorated, in part due to the light in his cell being left on 24 hours a day. He also has developed an enlarged prostate, gall bladder deposits, nodules in his thyroid gland, severe back pain, and most seriously, enlargement of the abdominal aorta. 

Until the Rule 39 measures from the Court, the Azerbaijani authorities have repeatedly refused to allow Ibadoghlu to be examined by an independent doctor and they continue to deny his requests to be examined by a doctor of his choosing. They have also denied the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to the prisoner. In late August, his existing prescription ran out, and he was left without medication for a number of days. The failure of the prison authorities to supply Ibadoghlu with medication meant that his family had to secure alternative supplies from around the world. The authorities’ refusal to allow a doctor to examine him also led to a delay in the supply of medication for his new health conditions. 

Our request for interim measures 

On 31 August, EHRAC and our partner lawyer submitted a Rule 39 request, which asked the ECtHR to require the Azerbaijani authorities to immediately  transfer Ibadoghlu to an appropriate hospital in Baku, Azerbaijan, for appropriate treatment and access to sufficient and proper medical care, or alternatively urgently address his health conditions in detention by providing adequate treatment, medications, and conditions consistent with his health. 

We argued that Ibadoghlu’s health has deteriorated significantly while in pre-trial detention due to the: failure to provide him with access to a doctor, medical treatment and medication; lack of appropriate food and water given his health conditions; and inadequate conditions of his detention. Taken together, we argued these circumstances violated Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights (the prohibition of torture or inhuman treatment). Following our request – and questions from the ECtHR – the Azerbaijani authorities did provide limited details of the current state of Ibadoghlu’s health. These documents showed that Ibadoghlu’s aorta had enlarged to an alarming extent during his time in prison, a development which carries the risk of a life-threatening aortic aneurysm, or rupture. 

On 5 September, the ECtHR partially granted our request, ordering the Azerbaijani authorities to ensure Ibadoghlu undergoes further medical examinations, particularly related to his aorta, and that he is transferred to a hospital if required. 

Following the granting of interim measures, on 14 September the European Parliament adopted a resolution insisting that the authorities grant Ibadoghlu “immediate access to adequate medical treatment and (that) medication be ensured”. The resolution also “urge(d) the Azerbaijani authorities to release all political prisoners, independent journalists and human rights defenders, drop all politically motivated charges against them and stop extraterritorial repression.” 

On 6 November, the Azerbaijani authorities updated the Court on the measures it had taken, including taking Ibadoglu to a hospital for a CT scan and examination by a specialist, MRI scans and examinations related to his back conditions, and examinations by endocrinologists and opthamologists for his kidneys and eyes respectively. Whilst we disputed the conclusions of these examinations, the fact that authorities conducted them shows the positive impact of the request for Rule 39 measures.