(Washington, D.C.) – Scores of activists were detained and five sentenced to prison following a peaceful protest in Azerbaijan on Saturday, prompting Amnesty International to urge the Council of Europe to make it clear it will stand up for freedom of expression in the country.
The arrest of around 80 peaceful protesters, 30 of whom were then charged, came just days after the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) failed to pass a resolution on political prisoners calling on Azerbaijan to cease arresting and prosecuting non-violent protesters.
"Just days after PACE rejected a resolution on politically motivated arrests, the prosecution of these 30 individuals demonstrates how far the issue is from being resolved," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's director for Europe and Central Asia.
Saturday's protest began as a peaceful gathering of more than 200 people in three separate locations in central Baku, the capital. The demonstration was a reaction to the violent dispersal of protests several days earlier in Ismayili, where police used tear gas and rubber bullets against crowds calling for the resignation of a local governor. Hundreds of people were also detained during the Ismayili protests and there have been allegations of torture in detention.
"Amnesty International is concerned at reports that several people arrested in relation to the unrest in Ismayili have been tortured and ill-treated while in custody," said Dalhuisen. "We are calling for an immediate, impartial, and effective investigation into any such complaints."
Unfair court hearings – lasting just minutes and using court-appointed lawyers – were held after Saturday's arrests, and 25 activists, including three individuals Amnesty International had previously declared prisoners of conscience, were handed heavy fines of between 300 and 2500 AZN ($383 and $3,186). The average monthly wage in Azerbaijan is $513.
Five more activists were handed prison sentences for their role in the protest – 15 days for blogger and former prisoner of conscience EminMilli, and 13 days each for Abulfaz Gurbanli, Rufat Abdullayev, Turkel Alisoy, and Turkel Azerturk.
"We are further calling on the Azerbaijani authorities to overturn the sentences of all those fined and sentenced in Baku for having taken part in Saturday’s peaceful protest," said Dalhuisen.
Among those arrested and put on trial was Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent independent journalist who was recently blackmailed and targeted in a smear campaign after she published a report on presidential corruption. She told Amnesty International:
"I was among the protesters in Sahil park [in central Baku]… [by then it was] already silent, as most of the protesters were dispersed. The group of the police attacked just to take me. I was screaming, asking who they are, as they never introduced themselves and what they want.
"My trial was a comedy. I entered the room where two men were sitting on the defense's place. I asked who they are and the judge said they were my lawyers. I said 'I don't know these people, I don't trust them and I refuse. I want my own lawyers.' I didn't know that in fact my lawyers were outside of the building and were not allowed in. The judge said I can't have my own lawyer as they are not here."
"The PACE co-rapporteurs responsible for monitoring Azerbaijan's obligations to the Council, Pedro Agramunt, and Joseph DebonoGrech, opposed the resolution on political prisoners proposed by German MP Christoph Strässer, stating they would address the problem of political prisoners themselves," said Dalhuisen. "Having taken on this responsibility, they must now intervene to ensure the sentences of those imprisoned or fined for taking part in Saturday's protest are overturned."
Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied.