Azerbaijan: Two opposition leaders arrested on trumped-up charges ahead of presidential elections must be released
The Azerbaijani authorities must release two opposition leaders who are facing trumped-up charges of organising rioting in what appears to be a politically-motivated prosecution, Amnesty International said.
The riots the pair are accused of instigating took place in the town of Ismayili, but had started the day before the arrival of the politicians, and carried on for two more days after they had left. The politicians say they had visited Ismayili in order to monitor the situation.
The two politicians, presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov and activist Tofig Yagublu, were arrested on Monday and were remanded in custody for two months pending trial, during a closed hearing on Tuesday.
Amnesty International Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia David Diaz-Jogeix said:
“The case has all the hallmarks of a politically-motivated prosecution.
“Ilgar Mammadov and Tofig Yagublu have been jailed on charges of starting a riot that had begun spontaneously, before they even set foot in town. The prosecution so far has not presented any evidence supporting these charges.”
Both opposition leaders have been charged with organising and participating in “mass disorder” and “violently resisting police” - charges which together could carry sentences of up to ten years’ imprisonment. According to their lawyers, no evidence has been presented to prove that the accused have committed a crime or incited others to do so.
The riots in Ismayili started on 23 January, and were sparked by a “road rage” incident in which the influential nephew of a local governor is reported to have drunkenly assaulted a local man and shouted insults at onlookers. A crowd gathered around the incident before attacking the family’s businesses and local police. Others took to the streets calling for the city governor’s resignation.
The following evening Mammadov, leader of the opposition group REAL (Republican Alternative) and a candidate in Azerbaijan’s October 2013 presidential elections, travelled to Ismayili. His lawyer told Amnesty he went to investigate the underlying tensions which led to the unrest and to monitor the reaction of the local authorities.
Yagublu, a journalist and the deputy chair of the opposition Musavat Party, travelled separately to Ismayili to report on the events for the Yeni Musavat newspaper. Tofig Yagublu had published several articles in Yeni Musavat aiming to expose government corruption.
Mammadov has long criticised the government’s clampdown on free expression and peaceful assembly and said he had recently received threats from ruling party MPs for criticising a new law that drastically increased fines for participation in unsanctioned protests.
The days of unrest in Ismayili were met with hundreds of arrests and violent repression by police, and the arrests were followed by allegations of torture and other ill-treatment in detention. To date, there has been no investigation into these allegations.
The Ismayili protests prompted peaceful demonstrations in the capital Baku on 26 January, where scores of protesters were dispersed and arrested by the Azerbaijani police using excessive force. Five were subsequently tried unfairly, convicted, and sentenced to prison terms.
David Diaz-Jogeix said:
“Following the recent rejection of a resolution on Azerbaijani political prisoners at the Council of Europe, Amnesty International fears that the Azerbaijani authorities are becoming increasingly bold in their repression of dissent ahead of this year’s presidential elections.”