In another farcical day in a Baku court today, 21-year old activist Bayram Mammadov was sentenced to 10 years in jail. He was arrested simply for spraying graffiti, but was later tortured into confessing to serious drug crimes. Bogus drug possession charges to silence critical voices is not new in Azerbaijan, where the authorities widely plant drugs on their opponents to lock them up. Mammadov’s alleged crime, like so many other individuals imprisoned on politically motivated charges in Azerbaijan, was his peaceful exercise of fundamental rights, including freedom of speech.

Bayram Mammadov and his friend 22-year-old Giyas Ibrahimov, who are University students and also the members of the pro-democracy NIDA youth group, were arrested on 10 May 2016, shortly after they sprayed graffiti on a statue of the late Azerbaijani president, Heydar Aliyev, father of the current authoritarian President Ilham Aliyev. The writing said “Happy Slave Day” in Azeri, which was a play on words for “Happy Flower Day.” Ibrahimov had painted the graffiti while Mammadov had taken the photos and aftermath posted them anonymously in Facebook. 

What the two activists daringly did in an environment of an extreme cult of personality around the ruling Aliyev family would hardly be tolerated. The graffiti itself was an indication of the anger and protest against to the immense government spending for the celebration of the Flower Day, which is also the birthday of country’s strongman, late president Heydar Aliyev.

Mammadov and Ibrahimov had confessed to the drug charges after they were badly tortured at the police station, where they were not allowed to access the lawyer of their choosing and were denied appropriate medical care. In a
letter from jail, Mammadov described the ordeal: “… I was beaten again as the policemen tried to force me to accept the drug charges. I told them that I had never seen narcotics in my life and they could not arrest me simply for having taken a photo. As a result, they beat me harder and demanded that I accept the charges. They swore at me and insulted me. They took my pants off and threatened to ‘immorally’ use a bat on me - that is, to rape me. I had no choice but to accept the charges. I 'confessed' and signed the testimony that was provided for me.

The plight of Mammadov and Ibrahimov is a familiar story in Azerbaijan, where the authoritarian regime has long manipulated the judicial system to enforce its repressive rule. Both detainee were unlikely to receive a fair hearing: The kangaroo court has already rejected numerous attempts to secure them bail and did not investigate detainees’ serious allegations of torture. In late October, after a trial that flouted fair trial norms, Ibrahimov had also been sentenced to 10 years.

The harsh and lengthy jail terms against Mammadov and Ibrahimov shed light on larger trends of political repression in Azerbaijan and on the government’s attempt to suppress a wide range of independent activity that occurs beyond strict state control.

Both men are just two of at least a
100 actual or perceived government opponents and critics the Azerbaijani government has imprisoned on politically motivated charges. Their conviction fits squarely into a well-established pattern of regime’s using false and ludicrous criminal charges against its critics. The victims of the ongoing crackdown span broad categories, including human rights activists, journalists, political opposition activists, religious activists, bloggers, former government officials and others, imprisoned for no other reason than their peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression and the government’s identification of them as “hooligans, terrorists, drugs addicts, possessors of weapons and other ludicrous labels”. They all were convicted without any solid and meaningful evidence presented by the prosecution.

Azerbaijan’s international partners should make it clear that their relationship with Baku will depend on the government’s commitment to the rule of law. So long political prisoners as Mammadov and Ibrahimov remain in prison on bogus charges that commitment is clearly non-existent. The list of activists falling victim to efforts by Azerbaijani authorities to curb criticism is growing by the day.

Without a fundamental shift in approach in Azerbaijan and with absent sustained, robust, and public international pressure, the appalling situation in the country will continue, and the suffering of over 100 wrongfully imprisoned prisoners, including Bayramov and Mammadov, and the families of other political prisoners, is sure to get worse. 


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