President Ilham Aliyev is notorious for his hardline approach towards free expression in Azerbaijan and I have written here before about attacks on dissident voices and the media. Members of the opposition and critical journalists face immense obstacles and hardship when trying to carry out their work. Many suffer death threats, surveillance, judicial harassment and violence. Despite the welcome release of some political prisoners in March 2016, dozens of journalists and activists remain behind bars for exercising their right to free expression.
These include 35-year-old writer and blogger Rashad Ramazanov (who writes under the name of Rashad Haqiqat Agaddin), who is serving nine years in prison after being convicted on trumped-up charges of ‘illegal possession and sale of drugs’. Ramazanov is well known for his anti-government posts, and PEN considers the charges against him to be politically motivated. The Azerbaijani authorities often use spurious charges of drugs or firearms possession, ‘hooliganism’ or tax evasion to arrest and imprison critical writers and journalists.
Ramazanov is a graduate of Baku State University and holds a master’s degree in ecology. He also has a PhD in philosophy, sociology and law from the National Sciences Academy of Azerbaijan. He is the author of seven books and numerous articles. His academic reports have been published by the National Sciences Academy as well as other institutes. He is also an active and outspoken political commentator on social media and has posted pieces critical of the government on his Facebook page under his pen name (see http://on.fb.me/12G0WJE).
Over the years Ramazanov has received various warnings and threats from the authorities for his critical writing. He has also endured death threats from radical Islamist extremists in Baku for his liberal views. As a result of these threats he fled to Turkey in 2009 with his wife and one-year-old daughter. They returned to Azerbaijan a year later, but the threats resumed and he lived apart from his family until 2012 in order to protect them.
On 9 May 2013, Ramazanov was arrested by officers from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and taken to the headquarters of the Department for Combating Organised Crime. The police claimed to have found nine grams of heroin on his person. Ramazanov maintains that it was planted by officers during his arrest. He also reports that he was beaten up during his arrest and was tortured during interrogation. Ramazanov’s lawyer, Rovshan Shiraliyev, told Human Rights Watch that when he was finally allowed to meet his client in the presence of the investigator, ‘There was a wound, about three centimetres long on his forehead. It was the result of a beating, Rashad said. There were also bruises on his neck and face, and reddened spots on his hands, which could be the result of the tight handcuffs.’
In November that year the Baku Court of Grave Crimes convicted Ramazanov and sentenced him to nine years in prison and in the following May his appeal against his conviction was dismissed. He has remained in prison ever since. Earlier this year, Ramazanov was punished with fifteen days in solitary confinement and denied access to his family and his lawyer. The reason for his punishment remains unknown. When his family were allowed to visit him they expressed alarm at his severe weight loss. They claim he is not receiving adequate medical treatment.
Ramazanov suffers from a number of health problems as a result of his imprisonment. The most serious of these is tuberculosis, which he contracted during a previous spell of detention. His wife was heavily pregnant with their second child at the time of his arrest in 2013; she gave birth to a son three weeks later. She claims that she is living under close surveillance and that the stress is affecting her wellbeing.
Readers might like to send appeals protesting at Rashad Ramazanov’s detention on politically motivated charges and calling for his immediate and unconditional release; urging the authorities to overturn his conviction and prison sentence; expressing serious concern for his health and wellbeing and seeking assurances that he is provided with adequate medical care; and calling on Azerbaijan to cease its campaign of intimidation directed at opposition or critical voices and to comply with its obligations under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which Azerbaijan is a state party) to protect the right to freedom of expression.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency Tahir T Taghizade
Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan
4 Kensington Court, London W8 5DL
Fax: +4420 7937 1783, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please send messages of support to:
Baku Prison #2
2 Cezachekme Muessisesi, Khazar rayonu, Bina qesebesi,
AZ 1045 Baku, Republic of Azerbaijan
Update: On 22 February, Uzbek journalist Muhammad Bekjanov (LR, June 2004) was finally released after eighteen years in prison. His case was the first I wrote about here. As editor of Erk (‘Freedom’) in the early 1990s, Bekjanov highlighted the poor state of the economy, the use of forced labour to harvest cotton and the Aral Sea environmental disaster. Bekjanov was one of the world’s longest-imprisoned journalists and is in poor health due to mistreatment in prison. He will not be allowed to leave Uzbekistan for one year and so is unable to join his US-based family during this period. Human rights organisations remain concerned about Yusuf Ruzimuradov, a colleague of Bekjanov arrested at the same time as him, of whom there has been no news for some years.