Azerbaijan – Azərbaycan
In Azerbaijan, we work with a number of individual human rights lawyers as the leading litigating human rights NGOs have been forced to close down as a result of the ongoing civil society repression. We litigate cases of political persecution of human rights defenders, activists, NGOs, lawyers and media, unlawful actions and impunity of state officials, including ill-treatment and death in custody as well as ineffective investigations, among others.
As a result of the civil society crackdown, which started in 2014, leading human rights NGOs closed down and their leaders – including Rasul Jafarov, Intigam Aliyev, Leyla and Arif Yunus – were imprisoned under fabricated charges and faced travel bans when released, or were forced to leave the country. The persecution has also targeted activists, often accused of and imprisoned under false drug possession or hooliganism charges, and human rights lawyers disbarred and deprived of their licenses.
In 2016, we achieved two precedent-setting judgments on behalf of Rasul Jafarov, Leyla and Arif Yunus, all formerly imprisoned for their human rights activism. In the first judgment of its kind, the Court found in March 2016 that Rasul Jafarov’s arrest and detention were politically motivated as punishment for his human rights work. In September 2017, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers called on the Azerbaijani authorities to reopen the proceedings into Rasul Jafarov’s criminal conviction in April 2015. This is an important precedent, in which the Committee has urged the re-opening of a conviction resulting from a ‘political prosecution’. Their decision came just weeks after we submitted a letter to the Committee of Ministers on his situation, calling for the re-opening of his case. The letter was supported by an opinion by leading UK barrister Julian Knowles QC.
Also in 2016, the Court ruled that the authorities’ failure to provide adequate medical treatment to Leyla and Arif Yunus during their pre-trial detention constituted inhuman and degrading treatment – the first such finding of a violation against Azerbaijan. In June 2017, we applied to Interpol to inquire about the existence of alerts against human rights defenders Leyla and Arif Yunus by the Azerbaijani Government, which could lead to their arrest, and their forced return to Azerbaijan where they could be detained again. 24 human rights organisations across the world signed an open letter supporting our request.
Dozens of independent lawyers have been subjected to harassment, prosecution and disbarment by the authorities in order to restrict their ability to take on high profile and politically ‘sensitive’ cases, especially those concerning human rights violations. Many of these courageous lawyers have worked tirelessly to defend human rights in Azerbaijan since the crackdown on civil society began. In autumn 2017, the Azerbaijani parliament approved a package of amendments to legislation governing the legal profession essentially prohibiting those who are not members of the Azerbaijani Bar Association (ABA) from representing clients domestically. The ABA has now been transformed into a highly-politicised body under state influence, effectively crippling the ability of independent human rights lawyers to take on cases.
We are representing several lawyers in European Court cases challenging their disbarment and harassment by the authorities. Prominent human rights lawyer Khalid Bagirov was disbarred following alleged comments he made that were critical of the Azerbaijani state and judiciary during a trial in September 2014 concerning a domestic courts’ failure to implement the European Court judgement in the case of Ilgar Mammadov, an opposition leader whose arrest was found to be politically motivated. Alayif Hasanov was disbarred in July 2016 as a result of a previous—and spurious—libel conviction. He had drawn attention online to the physical and psychological harassment of the renowned human rights defender Leyla Yunus by her cellmate in a pre-trial detention centre. In July 2019, we lodged a new ECtHR application on behalf of Yalchin Imanov, who was indefinitely disbarred after urging Azerbaijani authorities to investigate serious allegations of torture suffered by his client in Gobustan high security prison, later describing to the media the abhorrent treatment his client was subjected to.
As part of this growing body of litigation, we recently compiled a comprehensive list featuring dozens of Azerbaijani lawyers who have faced sanctions as a result of their human rights work. Their individual stories detail the extent to which Azerbaijan’s independent legal profession has been all but decimated in recent years.
Independent media is also at severe risk. Freedom of expression and media freedom have been and remain under vicious attack by the authorities. Forms of harassment against journalists and outlets take the form of travel bans, permanent blocking of independent critical news websites, violence against journalists, and ineffective investigations into ill-treatment and murder. For instance, award-winning investigative journalist Khadija Ismayil was banned from travelling abroad after her conditional release from prison in May 2016. We lodged her case before the European Court in June, arguing that the travel ban is intended to hinder and punish her for her high-profile journalism (including cross-border investigations into corruption, even at the highest political levels).
Systematic persecution of media outlets is a widespread issue: following the blocking of access to five independent or oppositional news sites in the spring, we lodged an application in June 2017 arguing the restriction is aimed at hindering society’s access to information and opinions critical of the Government.
We are also litigating the case of journalist and writer Rafig Tagi, who was killed in November 2011. Mr Tagi was a well-known critic of the influence of Iran and Islam on Azerbaijan and had been threatened and imprisoned for his writings in the past.
Ill-treatment in custody and the impunity of perpetrators is a widespread practice in Azerbaijan. Investigations are often ineffective and unjustifiably delayed or suspended, and deny victims participation. In January 2018, we lodged our reply to the Azerbaijani Government’s observations in the case before the European Court concerning the death of Elshad Babayev, an inmate in a Baku prison. Mr Babayev – a healthy, young man – died nine days after he had been severely beaten by prison guards, allegedly for attacking the prison chief. We argue that he died as a result of his injuries, inflicted by the prison guards, and that the authorities failed to effectively investigate his death. However, the Government contested this version of events, arguing that he died from sudden heart failure as a result of a rare undiagnosed heart condition.
In the evening of 26 November 2015, masked security forces stormed the town of Nardaran, where the Muslim Unity Movement (MUM) is based. Its leader has long been a vocal critic of the Government, accusing it of corruption and authoritarian rule. He and 16 other MUM members were arrested during the ‘security operation’. Six people, including two police officers, were killed during the clashes. Over 70 people have now been arrested in total, charged with murder, terrorism and attempts to seize power by violent means. The 17 men who have been sentenced have received prison terms of between 10 and 20 years. EHRAC and a team of Azerbaijani lawyers are advising those arrested during and after the Nardaran raids, in preparation for proceedings before the European Court of Human Rights. This is a large and diverse group of cases, raising a wide range of alleged violations, including severe ill-treatment and lack of fair trial.
As a result of civil society repression in Azerbaijan, which has resulted in the closure of many NGOs, we work closely with a number of individual lawyers.
We are also taking a number of cases concerning the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – you can read about these cases on our Armenia page.