Opposition figures sentenced to long prison terms in Baku

Thu 26 Jan 2017

Opposition figures sentenced to long prison terms in Baku

 On January 25th The Baku City Court for Grave Crimes, in Azerbaijan, sentenced several opposition figures to long prison terms. It convicted them of publicly calling for the overthrow of the government and of inciting ethnic, religious, and social hatred.The defendants were arrested in November-December 2015 in what is known as the Nardaran case. According to human rights defenders a total of 87 are arrested in this case of which some are already sentenced to prison in 2016 and some are still on trial.

The court sentenced theologian Taleh Bagirzade, the leader of a group called the Movement for Muslim Unity, and his deputy Abbas Huseynov to 20 years in prison. Fuad Qahramanli, deputy chairman of the opposition Popular Front Party, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Sixteen other activists received prison terms ranging from 14 1/2 to 19 years.

Except for Qahramanli they were arrested in a police raid targeted on Bagirzade in Nardaran, a village on the outskirts of Baku. During the raid a struggle between the police and residents to prevent the arrest of Bagirzade killed at least 6 people. The police stated that the men opened fire, while the accused maintain they were unarmed.  Qahramanli was arrested several days later on the basis of a Facebook post in which he branded the arrest of Bagirzade and other Nardaran residents "unjust".

Lawyers say this Nardaran case against opposition figures was fabricated and witnesses were pressured.  Some defendants say they incriminated themselves under torture during pretrial questioning. Others admitted to having signed a confession they had not read. The court has refused to investigate the allegations of torture.

Silencing dissent

Critics say the government of President Ilham Aliyev has used false charges as part of a persistent campaign to silence dissent in the oil-producing country. As global oil prices have dropped, Baku’s facade has started to crumble and is in need of money. In the spring of 2016 Azerbaijan released political prisoners in exchange for loans from the west, according to Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative reporter and the best-known of the political prisoners released in spring.  But things rapidly started to get worse again in October with a referendum designed to strengthen President Ilham Aliyev’s grip on power. It approved extending the presidential term limit from five to seven years and making it easier for the state to seize private property.