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Ilgar Mammadov

AZERBAIJAN / Detained February 4, 2013

UPDATE: On August 13, 2018, Ilgar Mammadov was released after the remaining two years in his sentence were suspended. He had spent a total of five years in prison. However, Ilgar is banned from leaving Azerbaijan.

Ilgar Mammadov is a prominent Azeri politician and outspoken critic of the Azerbaijani government. He is the head of the Republican Alternative Party (ReAL), an opposition political party that was originally founded as a youth movement to achieve social and democratic changes in Azerbaijan.

On January 24, 2013, Ilgar visited the small provincial town of Ismayilli, where the town’s inhabitants had rioted against local officials over an incident in which a local taxi driver was attacked by a businessman with connections to Ismayilli’s governor. On February 4, 2013, authorities arrested Ilgar and Tofik Yaqublu, another politician who had visited Ismayilli after the riot, and charged them with inciting the riot. Both politicians had visited after the protests were over and each spent less than an hour in the town.

Ilgar was subsequently placed in pretrial detention for two months. His pretrial detention was repeatedly extended by two-month periods until November 2013, when his trial began. His arrest was widely seen as orchestrated by the Azerbaijani government in the run-up to the October 2013 presidential election. Prior to being arrested, Ilgar had announced his intention to run for president during the October election. ReAL had been planning to name Ilgar as their presidential candidate on February 9, 2013, but moved the announcement up to February 4 following his arrest.

Ilgar continued to try and conduct a presidential campaign from pretrial detention, but his candidacy was thwarted after the Central Election Commission claimed that 4,982 of the 41,247 signatures gathered in support of his candidacy were invalid—placing him below the minimum 40,000 signatures required to run for president.

On March 17, 2014, Ilgar was sentenced to seven years in prison for “having organized or participated in mass disorders entailing arson or pogroms” and “resorting to violence endangering the life of police officers.” The trial was criticized as a “mockery of the law,” with the European Court of Human Rights ruling on May 22, 2014 that Ilgar’s detention was politically motivated. His case further received widespread international condemnation from the United States, the European Union, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International.

While he was imprisoned, Ilgar was tortured two separate times after refusing to apologize to and pledge his support for Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev. On July 29, 2015, Ilgar was attacked by a cellmate in order to coerce him into writing a letter of apology to President Aliyev. On October 16, 2015, Ilgar reported being beaten and kicked by the deputy prison heads. His lawyer subsequently reported that Ilgar had suffered severe headaches as a result of the beatings. Ilgar was additionally placed in solitary confinement in August 2015.

On August 13, 2018, the Shaki Court of Appeals suspended the remaining two years in Ilgar’s sentence, letting him go free. Ilgar had spent a total of five years in prison. However, he has not yet been fully acquitted and is banned from leaving the country.

 

Giyas Ibrahimov

AZERBAIJAN/ Detained May 9, 2016

Update: Giyas Ibrahimov was released by presidential pardon almost three years into his sentence on March 17, 2019, ahead of Noruz—Azerbaijan’s New Year celebration. While the presidential pardoning of prisoners is common around this time, it traditionally has not included political prisoners. Upon his release, Giyas gave an interview about how he intends to continue his activism and how he thinks the international community can help activists working under duress in Azerbaijan. Read the interview here.

Giyas Ibramihov is a student and member of the NIDA Civic Movement, a pro-democracy youth organization that has been targeted by the government. In 2016, Giyas was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison along with fellow activist Bayram Mammadov.

On May 9, 2016, the two students painted an anti-government message on the statue of Haydar Aliyev, the former President of Azerbaijan and the father of current president Ilham Aliyev. They posted photos of the graffiti on social media. The following day, both were kidnapped and taken to the police station, where they were brutally tortured and asked to publicly beg forgiveness and confess to serious drug crimes. After Bayram and Givas refused to plead guilty, police officers allegedly planted drugs at their apartments and arrested them on fabricated drug charges.

In December 2017, Giyas Ibrahimov and his father were accused of contempt of court, after they spoke out against the judge’s treatment of Giyas during a sentencing hearing. As a result, Giyas’s imprisonment was extended for three more months while his father, Hasan Ibrahimov, was sentenced to eighteen months of correctional labor with a 20-percent reduction of his salary. Both of them received death threats during their imprisonment.

In the beginning of 2019, Giyas took part in a hunger strike alongside various other Azeri political prisoners to protest the additional charges being brought against Mehman Huseynov, another Azeri activist who has been imprisoned since March 2017.

Baku Police Chief Mirgafar Seyidov, who tortured Bayram and Giyas in a police station, was included in a list of candidates for targeted sanctions by United States in the framework of Global Magnitsky Act. Amnesty International also highlighted their cases in its campaign for the release of political prisoners.

On March 17, 2019, Giyas was released by presidential pardon ahead of Noruz, Azerbaijan’s New Year celebration. While it is common for prisoners to be pardoned around this time, the amnesty has traditionally not extended to political prisoners. Giyas had spent nearly three years in prison.

Upon Giyas’ release, he gave an interview about his imprisonment and how he intends to continue his activism. He noted that “recognition and support by international community (sic) would be helpful for those continuing activism under risk.”

Bayram Mammadov

UPDATE: Bayram Mammadov was released on April 29, 2019 after serving a 30-day term in prison. Along with his prior term in prison from May 9, 2016 to March 17, 2019, Bayram was detained for almost three years.

Bayram Mammadov is a student and member of the NIDA Civic Movement, a pro-democracy youth organization that has been targeted by the government. In 2016, he was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison along with fellow activist and NIDA member Givas Ibrahimov.

Both were released almost three years into their sentence on March 17, 2019, ahead of Noruz—Azerbaijan’s New Years celebration. It is common practice for the Azerbaijani president to issue pardons for prisoners during Noruz, but the pardons are generally not extended to political prisoners.

On May 9, 2016, Bayram and Givas painted an anti-government message on the statue of Haydar Aliyev, the former President of Azerbaijan and the father of current president Ilham Aliyev. They posted photos of the graffiti on social media. The following day, both were kidnapped and taken to the police station, where they were brutally tortured. They were asked to publicly beg forgiveness and to confess to serious drug crimes. After Bayram and Givas refused to plead guilty, police officers planted drugs at their apartments and subsequently arrested them on fabricated drug charges. In June 2017, Bayram went on a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment conditions.

Baku Police Chief Mirgafar Seyidov, who tortured Bayram and Giyas in a police station, was included in a list of candidates for targeted sanctions by the US under the Global Magnitsky Act, a 2016 law that sanctions foreign government officials for human rights violations. Amnesty International also highlighted their cases in its campaign for the release of political prisoners.

Bayram was released on March 17, 2019, after three years in prison. However, he was rearrested just two weeks later on March 30, 2019 and sentenced to 30 days in prison. Although Bayram was officially charged with “disobedience to law enforcement,” many believe that he was arrested in retaliation to his outspoken criticism of the government on social media and his pledge to fight for the rights of all Azeri political prisoners. According to Human Rights Watch, “a day before he was rearrested, Mammadov gave an interview to a local online media outlet criticizing the authorities.”

Bayram was denied access to lawyers and relatives for four days following his re-arrest. During his trial on April 2, 2019, he alleged that the police had tortured him, showing the court the bruises on his face and his swollen nose and ears. Witnesses reported that Mammadov had “received serious traumas on his head and is dizzy all the time.” Although the judge ordered an investigation into Bayram’s torture, an Azerbaijani political prisoners’ advocate reports that “no one is punished for torture, because the very possibility of inhuman and cruel treatment is rejected.”

 

Afgan Mukhtarli

AZERBAIJAN / Kidnapped May 29, 2017

Afgan Mukhtarli is a well-known investigative journalist and political activist based in Tbilisi, Georgia, where he had been living in exile since 2014 to avoid persecution in Azerbaijan. He has contributed to various dissident media networks, such as Meydan TV, a Berlin-based Azerbaijani non-profit media organization that covers corruption, human rights, and other issues in Azerbaijan. He has also written for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani Service, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, and Eurasianet.org.

On May 29, 2017, Afgan was abducted while on his way home and forcibly taken across the border to a detention center in Baku, Azerbaijan. His lawyer reported that he was beaten and had received a bloody nose, bruises, and a broken rib during his kidnapping. He was subsequently charged with illegally crossing the border into Azerbaijan, assaulting a border guard, and carrying 10,000 euro of undeclared currency.

On January 12, 2018, Afgan was sentenced to six years in prison. Although he appealed, the Azerbaijani Supreme Court upheld the sentence on September 18, 2018. He has been detained ever since.

Prior to his abduction, Afgan had been targeted by the Azerbaijani government. On May 18, 2017, just eleven days before his abduction, he described being surveilled, threatened, and repeatedly summoned for questioning by security forces in Georgia during an interview with a local news site. He had additionally been investigating the offshore businesses of top Azerbaijani officials in Georgia before his arrest.

Afgan’s kidnapping and sentencing received widespread international condemnation. Both the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs and a member of the European Parliament, Henrik Mortensen, initiated investigations into Afgan’s detention. His detention was further met with statements of condemnation from the United States, the United Kingdom, the Office of Security and Cooperation in Europe, and prominent international human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others.

On April 23, 2019, Afgan’s family reported that he was suffering from a slew of health issues in prison, including eye pain, severe diabetes, and problems with blood pressure. However, the Azerbaijani government has reportedly refused to treat him. Afgan’s lawyer has appealed the government to have him examined in a private clinic at his own expense.

Tale Bagirzade

Tale Bagirzade

AZERBAIJAN / Detained November 16, 2015

Update: In February 2019, Tale Bagirzade began a hunger strike in protest of his reported torture while imprisoned in Gobustan prison, a high-security prison outside of Baku. A month prior, he published a plea asking the international community “do not be indifferent” to “human tragedy in Gobustan Prison.”

Tale Bagirzade is a prominent Shia theologian in Azerbaijan. He is also founder and head of the Muslim Unity Movement, a peaceful Shiite Islamic socio-political movement that calls for democratic reform and religious liberties. An outspoken advocate for the rights of the religious community, Tale has been vocal with his criticism of the ruling elite in Azerbaijan. Many believe his outspoken criticism of the government was the catalyst for the infamous “Nardaran affair,” in which he and 15 other religious activists were detained during a raid.

On November 26, 2015, the Azerbaijani authorities conducted a raid on a home in Nardaran, Azerbaijan, where Tale was leading a religious ceremony. A struggle ensued during the raid, ultimately producing six casualties (four civilians and two police officers). According to witness testimony, “black-masked security forces” dragged the targets of the raid to a furniture van and beat them with rifle butts.

Ultimately, Tale and 14 others were detained. Following the raid, Tale was taken to a temporary detention center, where interrogators broke his nose and prevented him from telephoning his relatives.

On January 25, 2017, Tale was sentenced to 20 years in prison on a litany of charges, including murder, terrorism, organization of mass riots, illegal possession of weapons, and attempted forcible seizure of power. Authorities accused him and the Muslim Unity Movement of planning an armed insurrection against the state, and claimed that they had thrown Molotov cocktails and opened fire on the police officers during the raid. The trial was widely criticized as farcical, as very few journalists were allowed entry to the courtroom, and the prosecutor spoke quietly and refused to use a microphone when laying out the case against Tale and the Muslim Unity Movement.

Tale has been previously targeted by the Azerbaijani officials, serving two terms as a political prisoner from 2011-2012 and 2013-2015. He had only been released from his second prison term for three months before being detained a third time.

Tale’s detention precedes an extended crackdown on the Muslim Unity Movement and other religious liberty groups. The United States Commission for International Religious Freedom stated that the status of religious freedom in Azerbaijan dramatically deteriorated in 2016. Local human rights defenders have closely followed the case of the imprisoned religious activists and recognized them as prisoners of conscience.

Fuad Ahmadli

Fuad Ahmadli

AZERBAIJAN / Detained August 18, 2016

Fuad Ahmadli is a young activist and member of the opposition political party Popular Front (PFPA). He served as the head of the Khatai branch of the PFPA’s Youth Committee, and also worked as an operator at the call center of the mobile company Azerfon LLC.

In 2014, Fuad was briefly detained and questioned for his activism. On February 24, 2014, Fuad reported that authorities “asked about his activities on Facebook and warned [him] not to make public calls for disorder.”

On August 18, 2016, Fuad was arrested and accused of distributing the personal data of Azerfon clients to third parties. He was further charged with having links to the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, with authorities claiming that they had found books by Fethullah Gulen in Fuad’s apartment. He was subsequently placed in pretrial detention, where Fuad was held incommunicado for ten days, as authorities refused to allow him to contact his lawyer or family members.

Fuad’s health deteriorated while he was in pre-trial detention. According to his lawyer, doctors from the Central Clinical Hospital were called to the prison after he suffered side effects from earlier surgeries. He was further placed in solitary confinement twice during detention.

On June 16, 2017, Fuad was sentenced to four years in prison. His sentence was widely condemned by international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch. Fuad has remained in detention ever since.

Gozel Bayramli

Gozel Bayramli

AZERBAIJAN / Detained May 25, 2017

UPDATE: On March 17, 2019, Gozel was freed by presidential pardon, along with 400 other prisoners in Azerbaijan, ahead of Noruz—Azerbaijan’s New Year celebration. The presidential pardoning of prisoners is common around this time, but generally does not include political prisoners.

Gozel Bayramli is the Deputy Chairman of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (APFP), an opposition political party in Azerbaijan.

On May 25, 2017, Azerbaijani border police detained Gozel as she was returning to the country from neighboring Georgia, where she received medical treatment for serious health problems. Authorities accused her of attempting to smuggle $12,000 in cash across the border. Gozel maintains that these accusations are fabricated, reporting that border police planted the $12,000 in her bag while taking her to a room for further questioning.

Gozel was subsequently taken to a pretrial detention facility while her case awaited judicial review. On January 23, 2018, Gozel was sentenced to three years in prison.

Gozel’s conviction has been widely criticized internationally. International human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch have released statements condemning Gozel’s imprisonment. The US State Department additionally released a statement to TURAN, an Azerbaijani news site, condemning Gozel’s sentencing.

On March 17, 2019, Gozel was freed by presidential pardon, along with 400 other prisoners in Azerbaijan. Her release comes in the weeks leading up to Noruz, Azerbaijan’s New Year celebration. While the presidential pardoning of prisoners is common around this time, it has traditionally not been extended to political prisoners.

Gozel had spent nearly two years in prison.

Bayram Mammadov and Giyas Ibrahimov

Bayram Mammadov and Giyas Ibrahimov

AZERBAIJAN / Detained May 9, 2017

“We believe in truth, so the prisons, tortures, insults and other things are not enough to turn us to slaves” Giyas Ibrahimov

UPDATE: Bayram and Giyas were released on March 17, 2019, by presidential pardon.

Bayram Mammadov and Giyas Ibrahimov are students and members of NIDA Civic Movement, a pro-democracy youth organization that has been targeted by the government. On May 9, 2017, the two students painted an anti-government message on the statue of Haydar Aliyev, the former President of Azerbaijan and the father of current president Ilham Aliyev. That same day, they posted the photos of the graffiti on social media. The next day, both were kidnapped and taken to the police station where they were brutally tortured. They were asked to publicly beg forgiveness from the statue and to confess to serious drug crimes. After they refused to admit guilt, drugs were planted at their apartments and they were then arrested on fabricated drug charges.

In 2016, both Bayram and Giyas received a 10-year sentence for the drug charges. In December 2017, Giyas Ibrahimov and his father were accused of contempt of court. As a result, Giyas’ imprisonment has been extended three more months while his father, Hasan Ibrahimov, has been sentenced to eighteen months of correctional labor with a 20-percent reduction of his salary.Both of them have received death threats during their imprisonment.

Baku Police Chief Mirgafar Seyidov, who tortured Bayram and Giyas in a police station, was included in list of candidates for targeted sanctions by United States in the framework of Global Magnitsky Act. Amnesty International also highlighted their cases in its campaign for the release of political prisoners. In June 2017, Bayram went on a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment conditions.

Ilkin Rustamzade

Ilkin Rustamzade

AZERBAIJAN / Detained May 17, 2013

Update: Ilkin Rustamzade was released by presidential pardon almost six years into his sentence on March 17, 2019, ahead of Noruz—Azerbaijan’s New Year celebration. The presidential pardoning of prisoners is common around this time, but generally does not include political prisoners. Upon his release, Ilkin gave an interview about how he intends to continue his activism and how he thinks the international community can help activists working under duress in Azerbaijan. Read the interview here.

Ilkin Rustamzade is a youth activist and leading member of Azad Genclik (“Free Youth”), a pro-democracy youth movement in Azerbaijan. An outspoken critic of the government, Ilkin and other members of Azad Genclik regularly used social media to organize peaceful protests.

On May 17, 2013, Ilkin was arrested in connection with his alleged involvement in a satirical “Harlem Shake” YouTube video filmed in Baku, Azerbaijan. Although Ilkin does not appear in the video and the video contains no political content, the authorities charged him with “hooliganism” under the assertion that Ilkin had filmed the video and subsequently posted it on YouTube. Ilkin categorically denied having any involvement in the video.

Ilkin had been previously targeted for his political activism. Just two days before his arrest, Ilkin had been released from 15 days of administrative detention for his involvement in organizing a peaceful gathering to commemorate victims on the anniversary of a 2009 shooting at the Azerbaijani State Oil Company. Two months before, in March 2013, he had served six days of administrative detention as punishment for organizing a series of widely-attended peaceful protests to raise awareness for the deaths of soldiers in non-combat situations.

In September 2013, Ilkin was further charged with “organizing mass violent disorder” and accused of plotting to use Molotov cocktails against authorities at the March 2013 protests. On May 6, 2014, Ilkin was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Ilkin’s arrest was widely criticized as being politically motivated. Critics pointed out that the “Harlem Shake” video was completely apolitical and that Ilkin makes no appearance whatsoever in the video. Dr. Agnes Callamard, then the executive director of international human rights organization Article 19, stated that Ilkin’s detention “is part of a wave of politically motivated arrests.”

While in prison, Ilkin was repeatedly placed in solitary confinement in retribution for his continued criticism of the government in letters sent from prison. In May 2017, he marked four years in prison and became one of the most long-standing political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

On March 17, 2019, Ilkin was released by presidential pardon ahead of Noruz, Azerbaijan’s New Year celebration. It is common for the president to pardon prisoners in the time period leading up to Noruz, but political prisoners have generally not been pardoned. He had served nearly six years in prison.

Upon Ilkin’s release, he gave an interview discussing his imprisonment and how he intends to continue his activism. He notes that “it is crucially important for international community (sic) to pay equal level of attention to all activists under risk, not only to those who are well connected with Western organizations.”

Mehman Huseynov

Mehman Huseynov

AZERBAIJAN / Detained January 9, 2017

UPDATE: On March 3, 2019, Mehman was freed after serving two years in prison, completing the full length of his sentence.

Mehman Huseynov is a well-known anti-corruption blogger and photojournalist in Azerbaijan. He is also the Chairman of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Security (IRFS), an Azerbaijani organization that promotes freedom of expression. As part of his photojournalism work, Mehman has documented the deteriorating political freedoms in Azerbaijan through powerful photographs, receiving the Fritt Ord Foundation and the Zeit Foundation’s press prizes in 2013. He documented corruption in the high echelons of Azerbaijan’s ruling establishment in a video series called “Hunt for Corrupt Officials.”

On January 9, 2017, plainclothes police officers attacked Mehman and forcibly dragged him into an unmarked vehicle. During the attack, they bound Mehman’s eyes and mouths with towels, forced a bag over his head, and used an electroshock weapon on his groin. They then drove Mehman around in the vehicle for four hours before taking him to the Nasimi District Police Station, where they formally arrested him. He was released the next day but fined 200 AZN (about 100 USD) for “disobeying the police.” Mehman subsequently spoke out against his treatment, calling for an investigation into his ill-treatment and giving interviews about his abduction.

On March 3, 2017, Mehman was sentenced to two years in prison on “defamation” charges related to his protest against his treatment at the Nasimi District Police Station. When his defense lawyer appealed Mehman’s sentence to present witnesses corroborating Mehman’s claims of being tortured in prison, the court refused to appropriately investigate the issue and dismissed his appeal in December 2017.

On December 26, 2018, just two months before Mehman was due to be released, authorities levied further charges against Mehman and accused him of “resisting a representative of the authorities with the use of violence dangerous to [the representative’s] health and life.” With the additional charges, Mehman faced up to another seven years in prison. According to Mehman, he was pulled aside during a routine inspection to undergo an additional search. However, when left alone with a prison official, the official fell to the ground and faked being attacked. The Azerbaijani officials refused to provide access to the surveillance cameras from the area.

To protest the unfounded charges, Mehman undertook a hunger strike, during which he was joined by a number of other Azerbaijani political prisoners, including Khadija Ismayilova, Tofiq Yaqublu, Giyas Ibrahimov, and Ilkin Rustamzade. The charges were subsequently dropped on January 22, 2019.

Mehman was released on March 3, 2019, after spending two years in prison.

 

Mehman Huseynov’s award winning photograph.

“I live in Azerbaijan where I never saw democracy. The fundamental freedoms of democracy are freedom of expression, freedom of media, freedom of assembly, property rights, etc. These freedoms and rights are restricted in Azerbaijan. Sometimes, you see people’s rights violated, but you cannot speak or write about it. In this photo, the police have covered the mouth and the eyes of the man so that he can neither see reality, nor speak about it. This is how democracy exists in Azerbaijan.” – Mehman Huseynov’s WYMD entry about freedom of expression and police brutality in Azerbaijan.

Leyla Yunus

Leyla Yunus

AZERBAIJAN / Detained July 30, 2014 – December 9, 2015

UPDATE: On April 19, 2016, Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif Yunus were able to travel to the Netherlands, where they received political asylum. In May 2017, the Azerbaijani government ordered the couple to return to the country to stand trial. The couple now resides in exile in the Netherlands.

Leyla Yunus is a prominent Azerbaijani human rights activist and the founding director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, a leading human rights non-governmental organization (NGO) in Azerbaijan. She is married to Arif Yunus, an Azerbaijani scholar who also serves as the head of the Department of Conflict and Migration at the Institute for Peace and Democracy. The couple is active in “citizen diplomacy,” participating in peace talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia to resolve the Nagorno-Karabkh conflict—a long standing territorial dispute between the two countries.

On July 30, 2014, Leyla and Arif were detained while on their way to Qatar from the airport in Baku, Azerbaijan. Both were accused of spying for the Armenian government. Leyla was sentenced to three months in pretrial detention.

Leyla’s arrest immediately triggered international backlash. On August 6, 2014, 60 NGOs issued a joint letter to the Azerbaijani government to raise concerns about Leyla’s health in detention, as she suffers from diabetes and adheres to a strict diet to control her illness. Leyla reported being denied medical treatment in pretrial detention; she was also severely beaten in pretrial detention, to the point of losing normal sight in her left eye. On December 11, 2014, Leyla was dragged by her feet into solitary confinement without explanation. She lost a total of 16 kilograms (35 pounds) in pretrial detention alone.

On August 13, 2015, Leyla was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison. In August and September 2015, the US and the European Parliament each issued statements and resolutions calling for the Azerbaijani government to release Arif and Leyla. However, on December 9, 2015, authorities suspended Leyla’s sentence due to health issues. Although Leyla and Arif were both released from prison, they were forced to sign documents agreeing not to leave Baku, Azerbaijan.

Following their release from prison, international pressure continued to mount on the Azerbaijani government as Arif and Leyla were banned from traveling outside the country to receive medical care. In March 2016, an appellate court upheld their travel bans. However, on April 19, 2016, the Azerbaijani authorities lifted the travel ban and allowed the couple to travel to the Netherlands, where they reunited with their daughter and received the medical treatment they needed.

The couple applied for and received asylum in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, the couple continues to be harassed by the Azerbaijani government. In May 2017, the Azerbaijani government ordered them to return to the country, so as to appear before court concerning their appeal. Supporters feared that the government would issue international arrest warrants to force the couple to return to Azerbaijan, leading 25 NGOs to issue a joint letter to Interpol warning against the warrants.

Arif Yunus

Arif Yunus

Yunus

AZERBAIJAN / Detained August 5, 2014 – November 12, 2015

UPDATE: On April 19, 2016, Arif Yunus and his wife Leyla Yunus were allowed to travel to the Netherlands, where they received political asylum. In May 2017, the Azerbaijani government ordered the couple to return to the country to stand trial. The couple now resides in exile in the Netherlands.

Arif Yunus is an Azerbaijani author, historian, and leading human rights activist. He is the head of the Department of Conflict and Migration at the Institute for Peace and Democracy, a prominent human rights non-governmental organization (NGO) in Azerbaijan. He is additionally married to Leyla Yunus, another leading human rights activist and the founding director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy. The couple is active in “citizen diplomacy,” participating in peace talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia to try and resolve the Nagorno-Karabkh conflict—a long-standing territorial dispute between the two countries.

On July 30, 2014, Arif and Leyla were detained while on their way to Qatar from the airport in Baku, Azerbaijan. Both were accused of spying for the Armenian government. While Leyla was immediately taken to pretrial detention, Arif was hospitalized due to his heart condition and then placed under house arrest. On August 5, 2014, Arif was arrested and charged with treason, large-scale fraud, forgery, tax evasion, and illegal entrepreneurship. He was then sent to pretrial detention, where he remained for a year without trial.

Arif’s health deteriorated significantly while in pretrial detention, as he was denied proper medical treatment. During trial proceedings on August 3, 2015, Arif lost consciousness. Doctors were brought in for the following three days of hearings, giving him injections so that the hearings could continue. Family members of Arif further reported that he had been placed in solitary confinement.

On August 13, 2015, Arif was sentenced to seven years in jail. His sentence was suspended on November 12, 2015, due to health issues. Although Arif and Leyla were both released from prison on suspended sentences, they were forced to sign documents agreeing not to leave Baku, Azerbaijan.

Arif and Leyla’s detentions received widespread international outcry. On August 6, 2014, directly after Arif’s arrest, 60 NGOs issued a joint letter calling for the couple’s unconditional release. In August and September 2015, the US and the European Parliament issued statements and resolutions calling for the Azerbaijani government to release Arif and Leyla.

Following Arif’s release from prison, international pressure continued to mount on the Azerbaijani government as Arif and Leyla were banned from traveling outside the country to receive medical care. However, on April 19, 2016, the Azerbaijani authorities lifted the travel ban and allowed the couple to travel to the Netherlands, where they reunited with their daughter and received the medical treatment they needed.

The couple applied for and received asylum in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, the couple continues to be harassed by the Azerbaijani government. In May 2017, the Azerbaijani government ordered them to return to the country, so as to appear before court concerning their appeal. Supporters feared that the government would issue international arrest warrants to force the couple to return to Azerbaijan, leading 25 NGOs to issue a joint letter to Interpol warning against the warrants.

Tofiq Yaqublu

Tofiq Yaqublu

AZERBAIJAN / Detained January 24, 2013

UPDATE: Tofiq Yaqublu was released by presidential pardon on March 17, 2016, ahead of Noruz—Azerbaijan’s New Year celebration. It is common for prisoners to be pardoned around this time, but political prisoners have traditionally not been pardoned.

Tofiq Yaqublu is a journalist for Yeni Musavat, an independent Azerbaijani newspaper, and is the Deputy Chairman of the Musavat Party, an opposition youth political party in Azerbaijan.

On January 24, 2013, Tofiq visited the small provincial town of Ismayilli to report on anti-government protests that had occurred the day prior. The protests stemmed from an incident in which a local taxi driver was attacked by a businessman with connections to Ismayilli’s governor. On February 4, 2013, Tofiq and Ilgar Mammadov, another politician who had visited Ismayilli, were arrested on charges of organizing mass disorder and violently resisting police. Both politicians had visited after the protests had ended, spending less than an hour in the town.

Tofiq was subsequently sentenced to pretrial detention for two months. His pretrial detention was repeatedly extended, until his trial finally began on November 30, 2013. During the trial, several witnesses for the prosecution withdrew their testimonies, stating that they had testified under pressure. Despite critics asserting that the trial was a “mockery of the law,” Tofiq was sentenced to five years in prison on March 17, 2014.

Tofiq was then taken to Prison No. 13, which is renowned for its inhumane imprisonment conditions. His imprisonment was condemned by the European Union.

On March 17, 2016, Tofiq was pardoned ahead of Noruz, Azerbaijan’s New Year celebration, alongside 148 prisoners. It is common for prisoners to be pardoned around Noruz, but political prisoners have generally not been included in the pardons. Tofiq had served over three years in prison.

Yadigar Sadiqov

Yadigar Sadiqov

EURASIA yadigar_sadiqov

AZERBAIJAN / Detained June 2013

UPDATE: On March 17, 2016, Yadigar Sadiqov was released by presidential pardon ahead of Noruz, Azerbaijan’s New Year celebration. While it is common for prisoners to be pardoned around this time, political prisoners have traditionally not been included in the pardons.

Yadigar Sadiqov is an academic and prominent political activist in Azerbaijan. He is a Deputy Chairman of the opposition Musavat party and serves as a top political advisor to Isa Gambar, the party’s national leader.

On June 27, 2013, Yadigar and his friends were sitting in a café when a stranger approached and began to berate them. Upon realizing that the stranger was attempting to provoke Yadigar into a fight, Yadigar and his friends departed the café. Yadigar was subsequently arrested at his home in Lenkoran, Azerbaijan and charged with attacking a man called Rashid Karimov—the stranger from the café.

Yadigar was promptly sentenced to pretrial detention for two months. His arrest came ahead of the October 2013 presidential elections, with many believing that Yadigar was detained to prevent him from campaigning for the upcoming election cycle.

On January 13, 2014, Yadigar was sentenced to six years in prison for “hooliganism.” In response to his conviction, the US Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued a statement voicing their concern for Yadigar and the “troubling developments affecting civil society and political pluralism in Azerbaijan.”

Yadigar was subsequently detained in the 14th Penal Facility in Azerbaijan. On March 17, 2016, he was pardoned by the Azerbaijani president and released from prison, ahead of Noruz—the Azerbaijani New Year celebration. It is common for prisoners to be released around Noruz, but political prisoners have traditionally not been included in the pardons. Yadigar had spent more than two years in prison.

Yadigar had been targeted by the Azerbaijani government before. A former lecturer at Lenkoran University, he had been targeted for dismissal by the university administration in 2003 and 2005 in retaliation for his political activities. In both instances, more than 500 students campaigned on his behalf and prevented Yadigar from being fired. However, in 2010, the university successfully dismissed him.

Rauf Mirkadirov

Rauf Mirkadirov

AZERBAIJAN / Detained April 19, 2014 – March 17, 2016

UPDATE: Rauf Mirkadirov was released on March 17, 2016, after his sentence was suspended. However, he has not been fully acquitted and states that he will continue fighting to have his name cleared.

Rauf Mirkadirov is a prominent Azerbaijani journalist who served as the Turkey correspondent for the independent Azerbaijani newspaper Zerkalo. Throughout his career, Rauf publicly criticized the Turkish and Azerbaijani governments for their human rights abuses. Rauf was also a strong proponent of “citizen diplomacy” between Azerbaijan and Armenia, participating in various international conferences to settle the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a territorial and ethnic dispute between the two countries.

On April 19, 2014, Rauf was deported from Turkey, where he had been residing with his family for three years, and was taken into custody at the Heydar Aliyev Airport in Baku, Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani government accused Rauf of espionage for Armenia, claiming that he transferred classified information about Azerbaijan’s political and military sectors to Armenian intelligence in 2008 and 2009 during his citizen diplomacy visits to Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey. He was promptly sentenced to pretrial detention for three months.

It is widely believed that Rauf was arrested due to an agreement between Turkey and Azerbaijan, with many pointing to the fact that he was deported only a few days after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Baku, Azerbaijan.

On December 28, 2015, the Azerbaijani government sentenced Rauf to six years in prison for “high treason, namely spying for Armenia.” His formal sentencing came after his pretrial detention was repeatedly extended. Both the US State Department and the European Union released statements condemning Rauf’s detention.

While in prison, Rauf suffered myriad health problems. He reported struggling with eye problems, issues with his blood pressure, and constant headaches.  He was placed in solitary confinement for the duration of his imprisonment.

On March 17, 2016, an appellate court suspended Rauf’s sentence and allowed him to go free. Although Rauf was released, he noted that he was not acquitted and vowed to continue fighting for his sentence to be overturned. Rauf had been detained for nearly two years.

Anar Mammadli

Anar Mammadli

EURASIA Anar_Mammadli 2

AZERBAIJAN / Detained December 16, 2013

UPDATE: Anar Mammadli was released on March 17, 2016, ahead of Noruz—Azerbaijan’s New Year celebration. Following his release, he co-authored an op-ed article with two other Azerbaijani political prisoners. Read the article here.

Anar Mammadli is a prominent Azerbaijani human rights activist and independent elections monitor who has been particularly outspoken about the Azerbaijani government’s improper conduct of elections. He founded the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDS), a non-governmental organization that works to support free and fair elections in Azerbaijan.

Following the October 2013 presidential elections, the EMDS issued a report that pointed to “large-scale irregularities and fraud” during the elections. A week later, the General Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation into the EMDS.

On December 16, 2013, Anar was arrested and charged with “tax evasion, abuse of authority, and illegal entrepreneurship.” He was promptly sentenced to three months in pre-trial detention.

Anar’s arrest immediately triggered widespread international protest. Prominent international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, issued public statements calling for his immediate release. Well-known international figures similarly voiced concerns over Anar’s arrest, including the High Commissioner of the European Union, the US Ambassador to Azerbaijan, the UK Foreign Minister, and the UN Special Rapporteur for the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association.

Despite widespread international attention, Anar was sentenced to five and a half years in prison on May 26, 2014. In September 2014, the Council of Europe awarded Anar the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize for his “outstanding civil society action in defense of human rights.”

On March 16, 2016, Anar was released by presidential pardon on March 17, 2016, ahead of Noruz—Azerbaijan’s New Year celebration. The presidential pardoning of prisoners is common around this time, but generally does not include political prisoners. Anar had spent more than two years in prison.

Upon Anar’s release, he published an op-ed article alongside two other freed political prisoners, Intigam Aliyev and Rasul Jafarov, where he called for the release of Azerbaijan’s remaining political prisoners. In Anar’s words, “if there is no respect for the rule of law, if we cannot enjoy basic human rights, then our freedom is subject to the whimsical pardons and arbitrary decisions of Azeri courts, not inalienable rights that we are born with.”

Rasul Jafarov

Rasul Jafarov

 AZERBAIJAN / Detained August 2, 2014

UPDATE: Rasul Jafarov was released by presidential pardon on March 17, 2016. On July 25, 2019, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Azerbaijani government had unlawfully denied Rasul’s organization, the Human Rights Club, registration as a lawful NGO in the country. The Human Rights Club’s status as an unofficial NGO served as the basis for Rasul’s detention in 2014.

Rasul Jafarov is a lawyer and prominent human rights defender in Azerbaijan. He has served as a reporter for the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, investigating numerous criminal cases against journalists. He further founded the Human Rights Club (HRC), a non-governmental organization (NGO) that launched the widely covered “Sing for Democracy” campaign—a campaign that highlighted human rights violations in Azerbaijan while the country hosted the Eurovision Song Contest. He now leads the “Art for Democracy” campaign, which grew out of “Sing for Democracy.”

After founding HRC in 2010, Rasul made several attempts to register the organization as a public association with the Ministry of Justice. In each of these attempts in 2011, the Ministry of Justice rejected their application for registration, claiming that HRC needed to specify the powers of a “legal representative” in their founding document. When HRC contested the decision, the courts ruled that the Ministry of Justice’s actions were lawful.

In July 2014, Rasul was summoned for questioning at the Prosecutor General’s office. There, he was interrogated as a witness in connection to alleged irregularities in the financial activities of a number of NGOs. The Azerbaijani authorities subsequently searched HRC and seized a number of its documents.

On August 2, 2014, Rasul was summoned back to the Prosecutor General’s office for questioning as a witness. When he arrived, he was arrested and charged with illegal entrepreneurship, large-scale tax evasion, and abuse of power. Rasul was subsequently sentenced to pretrial detention for three months. In December 2014, he was additionally charged with high-level embezzlement.

Rasul’s detention immediately triggered widespread international backlash. On August 4, 2014, a coalition of 60 human rights NGOs issued a joint letter to the Azerbaijani government to call for his release. Prominent international human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, further condemned his arrest; international organizations like the European Union and the United Nations additionally issued statements.

On April 16, 2015, Rasul was convicted of all charges and sentenced to six and a half years in prison. According to the court, Rasul failed to register grants made to the HRC and misused the money provided in those grants. Upon appeal, Rasul’s sentence was reduced by three months on July 31, 2015, making his total sentence six years and three months.

On March 17, 2016, Rasul was released by presidential pardon, along with 148 other prisoners. The pardon came in the weeks leading up to Noruz, Azerbaijan’s New Year celebration. While it is common for prisoners to be pardoned around Noruz, political prisoners have traditionally not been included in the amnesty. Rasul had been detained for nearly two years.

On March 17, 2016, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Azerbaijani authorities had unjustly detained Rasul as punishment for his activities as a human rights defender. The court noted that his arrest was part of a larger campaign to crack down on human rights defenders in 2014.

On July 25, 2019, the European Court of Human Rights further ruled that the Azerbaijani government had illegally denied Rasul’s application to register the Human Rights Club as an NGO. The Court found that the rejected registration, which served as the basis for Rasul’s detention, violated his and other HRC members’ freedom of association.

Khadija Ismayilova

Khadija Ismayilova

EURASIA Khadija Ismailov2

AZERBAIJAN / Detained December 5, 2014 – May 25, 2016

UPDATE: On January 10, 2019, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Azerbaijani government had violated her right to privacy and freedom of expression. She had been released on probation on May 25, 2016, after the court reduced her sentence to a 3.5-year suspended sentence.

Khadija Ismayilova is an investigative journalist and radio host for the Azerbaijani service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). She also served as a regional coordinator and journalism trainer for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). As an investigative journalist, Khadija uncovered massive levels of corruption involving Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his family.

On December 5, 2014, Khadija was arrested and placed in pre-trial detention for two months. Authorities accused her of inciting a former colleague to commit suicide, alleging that she pressured the editorial staff of RFE/RL not to rehire him. This claim was refuted by Khadija’s editors at RFE/RL.

Khadija’s pre-trial detention was extended repeatedly, until authorities charged her with embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power in a closed-door trial. On September 1, 2015, Khadija was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison.

Prior to her detention, Khadija has been repeatedly targeted by the Azerbaijani government for her investigative work. On March 7, 2012, Khadija received an envelope containing screenshots taken from a video of her engaging in a sexual act with her boyfriend, along with the threat “Whore, refrain from what you are doing, otherwise you will be shamed!” She subsequently discovered several hidden cameras in her apartment. When Khadija publicly replied to the blackmail letter and refused to stop her investigative journalism, the full video was released online on several pro-government websites. The video release put her life in danger—a male relative confronted Khadija with a knife after viewing the video. Khadija noted that “He reacted like all men here would react. He was about to kill me.”

In 2013, Khadija participated in an unsanctioned protest against police abuse. Consequently, the Azerbaijani government detained her and imposed a fine of 500 manat (293 USD) upon her. When she refused to pay the fine, the government assigned her 200 hours of community service by sweeping the streets. After Khadija turned her community service into a public campaign called “Sweeping for Democracy,” the government threatened her with three months of prison if she did not move her required community service to a more private venue, a rehabilitation facility.

Khadija’s arrest received widespread international condemnation, including from the US Department of State, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the European Union, and prominent international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

On May 25, 2016, Khadija was released on probation after her sentence was reduced to three and a half years and suspended. She had spent a year and a half in prison.

Khadija continues to be an outspoken advocate against the Azerbaijani government. She called for an investigation into her violation of privacy after the government took intimate videos of her through cameras hidden throughout her apartment. On January 10, 2019, the European Court of Human Rights unanimously ruled that the Azerbaijani government had violated her right of privacy and freedom of expression, and ordered the government to pay Khadija 15,000 euros as retribution.

Seymur Hazi (Haziyev)

Seymur Hazi (Haziyev)

EURASIA Seymur Hazi

AZERBAIJAN / Detained August 29, 2014

Seymur Hazi (or Haziyev) is an Azerbaijani journalist who has worked as a reporter for leading independent newspaper Azadliq and served as an anchor for opposition satellite TV program Azerbaijan Saati (“Azerbaijani Hour”). He is also a senior politician with the Front Party of Azerbaijan.

On August 29, 2014, Seymur Hazi was attacked at a bus stop during his commute to work. Authorities subsequently arrested him on charges of “hooliganism,” asserting that he had attacked and beat a Baku resident. Although Seymur’s lawyers maintained that he had acted in self-defense, he was sentenced to five years in prison on January 2015. He was then detained in Prison No. 17 in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Seymur’s supporters maintain that Seymur is being held on fabricated charges, pointing to the speed with which the police arrived to arrest Seymur as proof that the Azerbaijani authorities had orchestrated the altercation that led to his arrest. As a frequent critic of the Azerbaijani government, Seymur has a long history of being targeted for intimidation. In 2011, Seymur reported that he was abducted and tortured by six masked men, who warned him against further outspoken criticism of the government and confiscated his mobile phone. In an interview, he stated that “they gave me the message that they could put an end to my life whenever they want.”

Seymur has been detained for nearly five years, despite his sentence receiving international condemnation from multiple large international non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch. In 2016, he was awarded the Free Media Award for Independent Journalism from the Fritt Ord Foundation and the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius for his reporting on corruption and abuse of power in Azerbaijan.

Seymur has been detained for nearly five years. In October 2018, his wife reported that he underwent surgery for his back.

Intigam Aliyev

Intigam Aliyev

AZERBAIJAN / Detained August 8, 2014 – March 28, 2016

UPDATE: Intigam Aliyev was released on probation on March 28, 2016. On September 20, 2018, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Azerbaijani government had detained him on politically motivated charges.

Intigam Aliyev is a leading Azerbaijani human rights lawyer and activist. As the founder and head of the Legal Education Society, an organization that provides legal assistance to low-income and marginalized citizens in Azerbaijan, Intigam has defended over 200 clients in the European Court of Human Rights. He received the Homo Homini award in 2012 for his work in human rights.

On August 8, 2014, Intigam was detained in Baku, Azerbaijan and charged with “tax evasion, abuse of office, and illegal entrepreneurship.” Authorities further raided the office of the Legal Education Society, confiscating important case documents and forcing the NGO to close. Intigam was quickly placed in pre-trial detention for three months, where his health deteriorated. On November 7, 2014, his family members reported that Intigam was suffering from violent headaches, loss of appetite, and insomnia.

During Intigam’s trial, observers criticized the authorities for attempting to obstruct media access to the courtroom and for denying Intigam and his lawyers access to case files and documents. On April 22, 2015, Intigam was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. In his closing statement to the court, Intigam stated: “the arrests can take away our freedom, but not our desire for freedom. Our arrest continues our struggle for freedom.” While in prison, Intigam continued to advocate for human rights defenders and political prisoners, representing dozens of political prisoners from behind bars.

Intigam’s imprisonment received widespread international attention. On July 14, 2015, 95 lawyers from 24 countries released a public letter to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to call for Intigam’s immediate and unconditional release. In October 2014 and October 2015, while imprisoned, Intigam was respectively awarded the Norwegian Helsinki Committee’s Andrei Sarkhov Freedom Award and the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Award. He was further honored for his human rights work in February 2016, when the Council of Bar and Law Societies in Europe awarded him their annual Human Rights Award while he was still behind bars.

On March 28, 2016, Azerbaijan’s Supreme Court suspended Intigam’s sentence, citing his health issues. He was released after nearly two years in prison, but is on probation for five years. On April 7, 2016, the Civil Rights Defender organization named Intigam “Civil Rights Defender of the Year.”

On September 20, 2018, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Intigam’s arrest was “driven by improper reasons and the actual purpose…was to silence and punish the applicant for his activities in the area of human rights.” The Court ordered the Azerbaijani government to pay Intigam a total of 26,150 euros (29,225 USD).