Ten years in prison for graffiti on a statue of Heydar Aliyev
When 21-year-old Bayram Mammadov and 22-year-old Giyas Ibrahimov sprayed graffiti on a statue of Azerbaijan’s former president, Heydar Aliyev, they may have expected a police warning or a fine. Instead, they found themselves arrested on trumped-up drugs charges, beaten and threatened until they confessed. They were both sentenced to ten years in prison in 2016. Bayram is represented before the European Court of Human Rights by EHRAC and Elchin Sadigov and Zibeyda Sadigova, Azerbaijani lawyers who also represent Giyas.
[Prison for graffiti in Azerbaijan – video by Coda Story and Meydan TV]
Why were Bayram and Giyas punished so harshly?
Bayram and Giyas belong to an activist group known as N!DA, which is primarily made up of young people trying to achieve democratic and social change in Azerbaijan. Several of the group’s other members have been arrested and convicted on falsified charges over the past few years.
In Azerbaijan, 10 May is celebrated as Flower Day, commemorating the birthday of former President Heydar Aliyev, who is also the father of current President Ilham Aliyev. On 10 May 2016, Bayram and Giyas spray painted ‘Happy Slave Day’ (the words for ‘slave’ and ‘flower’ are similar in Azerbaijani) and ‘Fuck the system’ on his statue. The graffiti was part of a protest against the current government, corruption and widespread human rights abuse, and received extensive coverage on social media. The next day, they were both arrested.
What happened next?
Once in police custody, they were beaten up and threatened with rape. They were then told if they apologised on State TV in front of the statue, they would be released; they refused. They were insulted and severely beaten up by police officers again, and told that that drugs would be planted on their family members if they did not confess. Giyas was convicted and sentenced in October 2016, and Bayram in December 2016. Both remain in prison.
[Film released on International Day in Support of Victims of Torture by Meydan TV]
In December 2017, we applied to the European Court on Bayram’s behalf, arguing that:
- His trial was manifestly unfair, in breach of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR);
- His arrest and conviction for drug offences was related to his graffiti protest, and constitutes an unlawful interference with his right to freedom of expression (Article 10 ECHR);
- The real purpose of his arrest was to punish and silence him for his activism, namely the graffiti protest (Article 18 ECHR with Articles 6 and 10);
- He was detained unlawfully for three months from the date of his first court hearing until his conviction (Article 5 ECHR).
EHRAC’s partner lawyers in Azerbaijan submitted an application in Giyas’ case in July 2018, raising the same ECHR violations.
Why are these cases important?
Over the last few years, the Azerbaijani authorities have systematically targeted various groups known for their vocal criticism of the government and presidential administration, including activists such as Bayram and Giyas, journalists, media outlets, human rights defenders and lawyers, and civil society organisations. EHRAC and our partners represent individuals and organisations from all these groups, challenging severe restrictions and harassments, which have forced many of them to cease their activities or move abroad. These cases expose and challenge the impunity of law enforcement agents who threaten, harass and torture individuals in custody, and yet remain unpunished in Azerbaijan.