If Azerbaijan is a democracy, why were we imprisoned for our views?

Ilham Aliyev, the president of our country, Azerbaijan, is in Washington DC, attending a meeting with democratic leaders from around the world. But our country is not a functioning democracy.

We are now home with our families, but that was only a recent development. Two weeks ago, all three of us were behind bars with sentences of between six and seven-and-a-half years, prosecuted under trumped-up charges. Two of us were pardoned in the amnesty of Novruz holiday on 17 March, when 12 other political prisoners were also set free. A third, Inti gam Aliyev, had his sentence reduced to five years on probation on 28 March.

We were not the last political prisoners. Many journalists, politicians, activists and bloggers are still behind bars. The most prominent, Khadija Ismayilova, investigated the personal wealth of Aliyev and his extended family. She was detained in December 2014 and is now charged with embezzlement and abuse of power, and is serving a seven-and-a-half year sentence. She is locked up, but not broken: her mother says she is singing opera arias and she has translated Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani into Azeri. Ilgar Mammadov is also in jail for seven years for daring to be a candidate in the 2013 presidential election. He is head of the Republican Alternative opposition movement. His wife says that his spirits are high and indeed he continues a blog from behind bars.

Those, like us, who have been released, cannot fully enjoy our own freedom until the other political prisoners are released. The rule of law must be respected in our country and criminal charges should not be used as a cover up for politically motivated detentions of the regime’s opponents.

A few hours before Rasul Jafarov was pardoned, the European court of human rights (ECHR) declared his detention to be “politically motivated”. The same verdict is expected for Aliyev, whose case is at the ECHR. This is all theoretical, though: the detention of Mammadov had already been declared illegal by ECHR back in May 2014. The Azeri government paid no heed to that verdict.

If there is no respect for the rule of law, if we cannot enjoy basic human rights, then our freedom is subject to the whimsical pardons and arbitrary decisions of Azeri courts, not inalienable rights that we are born with. We are all active in different areas of civic society, and all of them are perfectly legal in a functioning democracy. If Azerbaijan is to be considered as such, the government must stop interfering with our work.

Aliyev wants to continue defending his clients without being targeted with absurd false charges such as tax evasion and fraud, which bear absolutely no relation to his legal work. He has defended more than 200 clients in the ECHR, and won more than 50 of his cases. He has continued from behind bars, representing dozens more clients. In a functioning democracy, there are no political prisoners – this is Aliyev’s aim.

Rasul Jafarov wants to continue leading his human rights organisation and campaigning without fear that his activities will be condemned as a challenge to the integrity of the Azeri state, resulting in his charge of “illegal entrepreneurship”. Teaching about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not a crime in any country with functioning democracy.

Anar Mammadli wants to continue educating the population about civic rights, to enhance voter education and to work on the reform of the electoral system. Last time he tried to do this, he was charged with tax evasion and using his office to falsify [presidential] election results. Any functioning democracy should allow such activities without fear that it is being undermined.

Only once all Azeri political prisoners are released, there is proper respect for the rule of law, and NGOs are allowed to operate in a truly independent fashion, will we be able to consider our country a functioning democracy.

Intigam Aliyev is a lawyer, Rasul Jafarov is a human rights activist, Anar Mammadli is the head of an election monitoring group


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