Azerbaijan, Holding CoE Presidency, Found Guilty of Violating Human Rights

Azerbaijan, now holding the presidency of the Council of Europe, continues to be dogged by its human rights record. Last month, the Court of Human Rights ruled that the government violated the basic human rights of a political prisoner.

At the end of May, Azerbaijan assumed the presidency of the Council of Europe, which it will hold for the next six months. It is unfortunate that the efforts to implement democracy and human rights protection standards in the country have been so unsuccessful thus far. NGOs based in Baku estimate that more than one hundred political prisoners remain locked up in Azerbaijan. On May 22, The European Court of Human Rights issued its ruling in the case of one of these prisoners, Ilgar Mammadov, the leader of "REAL" opposition movement.

Mammadov had decided to stand as a candidate in the presidential elections planned for November of 2013. In January 2013, riots broke out in Ismailia, a town north of Baku. People demolished the property of prominent politicians and local authorities, setting many things ablaze (even a local hotel was burned out). According to the media, the reason behind the impulsive outburst was a car accident, caused by the son of Minister of Labor. Mammadov went to Ismailia and wrote about what he saw on his blog, saying that people took to the streets as a means to fight against corruption and nepotism. He also referred to information posted by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism's website, according to which the burned hotel once belonged to the Labor Minister's son. The blog entry brought broad media attention, whereas the Ministry's information about the hotel disappeared an hour after being published.

In an official press release from January 29, 2013, the Ministry of the Interior and the General Prosecutor's Office claimed that Mammadov's acts were aimed at bringing political and social instability to the country, and that the "illicit act" would be subject to investigation. He was brought in and questioned by the prosecutor to establish the level of his involvement in the unrest. During the proceedings, two witnesses, both Ismailia citizens, testified that Mammadov had talked them into throwing rocks at the police. He rejected the accusation, claiming that the evidence has been fabricated. In February 2013, he was arrested and charged with organizing riots and actively participating in them. The charges were then altered two months later, charging him with exercising violence against a police officer and posing a threat to their health or life. In the fall of 2013, the electoral commission removed him from the list of candidates for the presidential election, allegedly for using falsified signatures on his voter lists. In March of 2014, Mammadov was sentenced to seven years in prison. He lodged an appeal that is still waiting to be recognized.

Mammadov then turned to the European Court of Human Rights, with a complaint against a violation of the right for freedom and security (Article 5 of the Convention), as he'd been arrested without any justification. He also pointed to a violation of Article 6 § 2 of the Convention (presumption of innocence) in relation to the press release of the Minister of the Interior and Prosecutor's Office claiming he meant to create unrest. Moreover, in reference to Article 18 (permitted restrictions), he argued that his detention was politically motivated and aimed at nothing more than holding him back from running in the elections.

The Court ruled that all the violations Mammadov alleged did in fact occur. It emphasized that Mammadov is an opposition politician, who was openly critical of the government in the election's run-up; that he went to Ismailia a day after the riots broke out and the gravest damage had been done, which rules out his involvement in organizing them; that the government could not show that the lower courts had made any effort to investigate Mammadov's claims or gather evidence to prove his guilt; and that the sentencing court simply adopted the prosecutor's arguments in convicting him. The ECtHR also came to the conclusion that the press release claiming Mammadov's guilt was an unambiguous breach of the presumption of innocence. The Court said it was clear that the actions taken by Azerbaijan's government were designed to silence and threaten Mammadov in the run-up to the election. Therefore, his detention was a violation of Article 18 of the Convention, in connection with Article 5. The government of Azerbaijan was ordered to pay 20,000 euros in damages to the Mammadov.

The case is worth remembering during the celebrations of the anniversary of first democratic elections in Poland. There are countries belonging to the Council of Europe that need our support and international pressure, in order to push them towards democratic development. Even though Azerbaijan, because of its presidency, should be a shining example, two social activists were sentenced just this week to prison terms in excess of three and five years.