Several authoritarian regimes are using the coronavirus outbreak as an excuse to crack down on opposition and critics. Azerbaijan’s intimidatory tactics are perhaps less well known and scrutinised than those of other countries. Ilham Aliyev took over the presidency from his hardline father, Heydar, in 2003. By then, Ilham was already prime minister, vice-chairman of the state oil company and deputy leader of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party. He won the 2003 presidential election by a landslide. Western observers claimed the campaign had been tainted by voter intimidation, arrests, violence and media bias. Opposition demonstrations were met with police violence. Like his father, Ilham has ruled with an iron fist ever since.
On 19 March this year, President Aliyev promised ‘new rules’ for the duration of the pandemic. He threatened to clear the country of ‘traitors’ and to ‘isolate the fifth column’ in his yearly address to the nation to mark the Novruz Bayrami holiday. He was as good as his word: reporter and human rights lawyer Elchin Mammad was detained on 30 March, a few days after he had published a critical report on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan. Police arrested Mammad at his home, alleging that they had found stolen jewellery in his office. He maintains that the police planted it in his absence. The following day, Sumgait City Court remanded Mammad in custody for three months. PEN believes that he is being victimised for his critical reporting and human rights activities.
Mammad is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Yukselish Namine online newspaper, which supports the activities of civil society organisations in Azerbaijan and publishes articles on human rights and freedom of speech and of the press, among other topics. Prior to this, Mammad worked as editor and correspondent for various other newspapers. He is also the president of the Social Union of Legal Education of Sumgait Youth (SULESY), an organisation that provides free legal assistance to low-income families and legal support for local NGOs.
In 2013, the government of Azerbaijan began a widespread crackdown on perceived enemies of the regime, arresting prominent government critics, human rights defenders and political activists on fabricated charges of financial irregularities. Spurious charges of economic crimes and ‘abuse of authority’ are regularly used in Azerbaijan to imprison leaders of independent NGOs and other dissidents. Amnesty International has documented the arbitrary use of the criminal law to prosecute prominent activists, journalists and lawyers. While many are eventually released following international pressure, often after having spent years in prison, they continue to face harassment by the authorities, summary travel restrictions and the freezing of their organisations’ bank accounts. I have previously written in these pages (LR, April 2017) about writer and blogger Rashad Ramazanov (pen name Rashad Hagigat Agaaddin), who received a nine-year prison sentence on trumped-up charges of ‘illegal possession and sale of drugs’. He had been an active and outspoken political commentator on social media and had posted pieces critical of the government on his Facebook page under his pen name. Ramazanov was among hundreds of prisoners pardoned by Aliyev on 16 March last year to mark the Novruz Bayrami holiday.
Like Ramazanov, Mammad has been threatened by the authorities for a number of years and has repeatedly been investigated for alleged crimes. He has been interrogated and has had his house and office searched on multiple occasions. In 2014, the Azerbaijan authorities launched an investigation into a number of NGOs, including SULESY. Mammad was questioned several times by the Sumgait police in connection with the investigation and his freedom to travel was curtailed. In 2015, he was detained for twelve hours but released without charge after taking part in a session of the Parliamentary Assembly Council of Europe.
Despite the welcome release of some political prisoners in March last year, the arrest and politically motivated prosecution of critics continue, while international human rights monitors, including Amnesty, have been denied access to the country for years. The media in Azerbaijan is under tight government control and many independent outlets have been forced to close or operate from abroad. Prison conditions in Azerbaijan are poor and are likely to have degenerated further during the coronavirus pandemic.
Readers might like to send appeals calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Elchin Mammad, and urging the Azerbaijani authorities to cease the persecution of journalists, human rights defenders and other dissident voices and to immediately release all those held in prison for having exercised their right to freedom of opinion and expression.
Appeals to be addressed to:
President Ilham Aliyev
19 Istiqlaliyyat Street, Baku AZ1066, Azerbaijan
Fax: +99 412 492 3543
His Excellency Prosecutor General Zakir Qaralov
Office of the Prosecutor General
7 Rafibeyli Street, Baku AZ1001, Azerbaijan
His Excellency Ambassador Tahir Taghizadeh
Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan
4 Kensington Court, London W8 5DL