Açiq mənbələrdən foto.

Açiq mənbələrdən foto.

Baku/27.05.20/Turan: Amid growing concerns over the spread of Covid-19 in prisons, not only do the Azerbaijani authorities continue to hold their unfairly prosecuted critics behind bars, they have stepped up their campaign of incarceration of political opponents on spurious and politically motivated charges under the pretext of fighting the pandemic. This is the latest offensive against freedom of expression and other fundamental human rights in the country. Moreover, given the recent cases of Covid-19 infections in Azerbaijani penitentiary institutions, detained individuals are also exposed to higher risk of contracting the virus. 

 The Azerbaijani authorities must immediately halt the arbitrary detention of individuals simply for exercising their rights. They should free all political and civil society activists, including human rights defenders, journalists and any persons imprisoned solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression, immediately and unconditionally. Government abuse of the country’s criminal justice system, including the incarceration of political opponents and other dissenting voices must stop. On 15 May, Azerbaijani authorities reported 46 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in prisons. 

According to local human rights defenders, who believe that the government is trying to underplay the extent of the pandemic in the country, the number of infected persons is likely to be significantly higher. Overcrowding and inadequate unsanitary conditions in penitentiary facilities already pose a serious health threat to Azerbaijan’s prison population. This will only be exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Against this background, Azerbaijani authorities mounted a new wave of arrests and prosecutions of political activists, journalists and human rights defenders.

On 19 March, President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev announced “new rules” for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic, and promised to “clean up” Azerbaijan’s political opposition, which he called traitors and “the fifth column”. 

High profile arrests of political and civil rights activists under spurious charges have followed the President’s pronouncement, including the arrest of an opposition leader, Tofig Yagublu, on charges of hooliganism on 22 March, and human rights defender, Elchin Mammad, on charges of theft on 30 March. Both must be released immediately and unconditionally.   

More than a dozen individuals, comprising activists, journalists and others who dared to criticize the authorities’ handling of the pandemic, have been detained and remanded in so-called administrative detention for periods ranging from 10 to 30 days on bogus charges including disobeying police orders or breaking the rules of lockdown. At least four journalists have been detained and jailed for their critical reporting on the government lockdown measures. One of the country’s biggest opposition parties, the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA), have reported that fifteen of their activists were arrested and jailed for up to 30 days under spurious administrative charges in connection with their peaceful political activism or criticism of the authorities. One of them, Niyameddin Ahmedov, arrested on 16 April, served in full his administrative detention of 30 days, given for his purported violation of lockdown rules. However instead of releasing him, on 18 May the authorities brought new criminal charges, accusing him of using money acquired from illicit drug trafficking under Criminal Code Article 214.1.

The timing of his arrest, the nature of the charges, and the circumstances under which these were brought following his arrest and detention for a purported administrative violation, indicate that his prosecution is politically motivated. He was denied access to the lawyer of his choice and has now been remanded in detention for additional four months until September. The charges against Niyameddin Ahmedov must be dropped and he should be released immediately together with other activists serving administrative detentions on spurious politically motivated charges. According to the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), all the prisons visited in 2016 were overcrowded to varying degrees, including some cases where inmates had to share beds or sleep in shifts or on the floor.

 A 2018 report by the Azerbaijani NGO Human Rights Club noted that they had systematically received complaints from prisoners about overcrowding, insufficient heating in cells, poor hygiene, lack of access to natural light, poor nutrition, and denial of access to required medical care in prisons and police custody. On 30 April, Ministry of Justice announced that some 260 prisoners were pardoned and released in connection with the coronavirus pandemic. Of these, 176 prisoners over 65 suffering from certain health conditions were released on 7 April, while the remaining prisoners were released on “humanitarian grounds”. 

While this is a welcome measure, considering that individuals at this age are at a heightened risk of contracting Covid-19 with potentially deadly results, it does not go far enough as these represent only a fraction of Azerbaijan’s prison population. Moreover, activists, journalists and government critics imprisoned or placed in detention over politically motivated charges were not included in the list of those released.  According to its commitments under international human rights law, Azerbaijan is under a clear obligation to take necessary measures to ensure the right to health of all prisoners without discrimination. Amnesty international calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to respect the principle of non-discrimination in the measures taken to lessen the grave health risk in prisons and ensure that those detained on politically motivated charges also benefit from the Covid-19 related release.

Moreover, Azerbaijan should take all possible measures to reduce its prison population. It should consider if certain other groups of prisoners could be released on parole or granted early or conditional release or other alternative non-custodial measures. Azerbaijani courts should consider making full use of non-custodial pre-trial measures to avoid exposing people to the risk of infection in prisons. Instead, Azerbaijan continues to incarcerate political and civil society activists, including human rights defenders, journalists and others on politically motivated charges, despite calls within and outside the country to immediately halt this practice. -0-


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