2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Azerbaijan
ANNOUNCEMENT: The Department of State will release an addendum to this report in mid 2021 that expands the subsection on Women in Section 6 to include a broader range of issues related to reproductive rights.
The constitution provides for a republic with a presidential form of government. Legislative authority is vested in the Milli Mejlis (National Assembly). The presidency is the predominant branch of government, exceeding the judiciary and legislature. On February 9, the government conducted National Assembly elections. The election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that the National Assembly elections and the 2018 presidential election took place within a restrictive legislative framework and political environment, which prevented genuine competition in these elections.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service are responsible for security within the country and report directly to the president. The Ministry of Internal Affairs oversees local police forces and maintains internal civil defense troops. The State Security Service is responsible for domestic matters, and the Foreign Intelligence Service focuses on foreign intelligence and counterintelligence matters. The State Migration Service and the State Border Service are responsible for migration and border enforcement. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of security forces committed some abuses.
During 44 days of intensive fighting from September 27 to November 10 involving Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Armenia-supported separatists, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan, as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region. Since 1995 the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh has been the subject of international mediation by the cochairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group (the United States, France, and Russia). There was also an outbreak of violence with casualties along the international border between Azerbaijan and Armenia near Tovuz from July 12 to July 16. During the period of martial law from September 28 to December 12, which the government declared following the outbreak of hostilities on September 27, authorities restricted freedom of movement and access to information.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killing; torture; arbitrary detention; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; politically motivated reprisal against individuals outside the country; pervasive problems with the independence of the judiciary; heavy restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence against journalists, the criminalization of libel and slander, harassment and incarceration of journalists on questionable charges, and blocking of websites; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on freedom of movement; severe restrictions on political participation; systemic government corruption; police brutality against individuals based on sexual orientation; and existence of the worst forms of child labor. Significant human rights issues connected with the Nagorno-Karabakh armed conflict included unlawful killings, civilian casualties, and inhuman treatment.
The government did not prosecute or punish the majority of officials who committed human rights abuses; impunity remained a problem.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
A. ARBITRARY DEPRIVATION OF LIFE AND OTHER UNLAWFUL OR POLITICALLY MOTIVATED KILLINGS
There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
The Office of the Prosecutor General is empowered to investigate whether killings committed by the security forces were justifiable and pursue prosecutions.
Reports of arbitrary or unlawful killings in police custody continued. For example, on November 9, Talysh historian and activist Fakhraddin Abbasov reportedly died in Gobustan prison under suspicious circumstances. Prison authorities stated he committed suicide. On October 13, he reportedly announced that his life was in danger and warned family and supporters not to believe future claims he had died by suicide. Some human rights activists also noted suicide was against Abbasov’s religious views.
During the 44 days of intensive fighting involving Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Armenia-supported separatists, there were credible reports of unlawful killings involving summary executions and civilian casualties (see sections 1.b., 1.c., 1.d., 2.a., 5, and 6, and the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2020 for Armenia). The sides to the conflict submitted complaints to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) accusing each other of committing atrocities. The cases remained pending with the ECHR.
In early October, two videos surfaced on social media of Azerbaijani soldiers humiliating and executing two Armenian detainees in the town of Hadrut. On October 15, the videos were assessed as genuine by independent experts from Bellingcat, the BBC, and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRL). Armenian authorities identified the victims as civilian residents Benik Hakobyan (age 73) and Yuriy Adamyan (age 25). Digital forensic analysis by the DFRL and Bellingcat concluded the video footage was authentic, noting it was filmed in Hadrut, Nagorno-Karabakh, and showed the captives being taken by men speaking Russian and Azerbaijani and wearing Azerbaijani uniforms. One of the captors in the video was wearing a helmet typically worn by members of the Azerbaijani special forces, according to the Atlantic Council and Bellingcat analyses. The government stated the videos were staged.
In another high-profile example, on December 10, Amnesty International issued a report based on 22 videos it had authenticated, out of dozens of videos circulating on social media depicting atrocities committed by both Azerbaijanis and ethnic Armenians. Among these 22 videos, the Amnesty report documented the execution by decapitation of two ethnic Armenian civilians by Azerbaijani forces, one of whom wore a helmet that Amnesty reported was associated with special operations forces. Amnesty urged both countries to investigate what it described as “war crimes.”
There were credible reports of Azerbaijani forces and Armenian or ethnic Armenian separatist forces firing weapons on residential areas and damaging civilian infrastructure with artillery, missiles, and cluster munitions. Such attacks resulted in significant civilian casualties.
Azerbaijani armed forces allegedly used heavy artillery missiles, combat unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and aerial bombs, as well as cluster munitions, hitting civilians and civilian facilities in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azerbaijani government denied the accusations that the military shelled civilian structures. For example, on October 3 and December 11, Human Rights Watch criticized Azerbaijan’s armed forces for repeatedly using weapons on residential areas in Nagorno-Karabakh. On October 5, Amnesty International crisis response experts corroborated the authenticity of video footage–consistent with the use of cluster munitions–from the city of Stepanakert that was published in early October and identified Israeli-made cluster munitions that appeared to have been fired by Azerbaijani armed forces. The Hazardous Area Life-support Organization (HALO) Trust, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) working in Nagorno-Karabakh to clear unexploded ordnance, confirmed the use of cluster munitions in operations striking civilian infrastructure in Nagorno-Karabakh during intensive fighting in the fall.
On November 2, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights criticized continuing attacks in populated areas in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet noted that “homes have been destroyed, streets reduced to rubble, and people forced to flee or seek safety in basements.”
The Azerbaijani government reported 98 civilians killed and more than 400 wounded during the fighting. Armenian authorities reported 75 ethnic Armenian civilians were killed and 167 were wounded during the fighting.
There also was an outbreak of violence–including the exchange of fire using heavy weaponry and deployment of drones–at the international border between Azerbaijan and Armenia from July 12 to July 16. Recurrent shooting along the Line of Contact caused civilian deaths.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) processed cases of persons missing in connection with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and worked with the government to develop a consolidated list of missing persons. According to the ICRC, approximately 4,500 Azerbaijanis and Armenians remained unaccounted for as a result of the conflict in the 1990s. The State Committee on the Captive and Missing reported that, as of December 1, there were 3,890 citizens registered as missing as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh fighting in the 1990s. Of these, 719 were civilians. On December 15, the ICRC reported it had received thousands of calls and visits from families of individuals missing and received hundreds of tracing requests for civilians and soldiers connected with the fall fighting.
C. TORTURE AND OTHER CRUEL, INHUMAN, OR DEGRADING TREATMENT OR PUNISHMENT
While the constitution and criminal code prohibit such practices and provide for penalties for conviction of up to 10 years’ imprisonment, credible allegations of torture and other abuse continued. Most mistreatment took place while detainees were in police custody, where authorities reportedly used abusive methods to coerce confessions and denied detainees access to family, independent lawyers, or independent medical care. There also were credible reports that Azerbaijani and Armenian forces abused soldiers and civilians held in custody.
During the year the government took no action in response to the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) reports on six visits it conducted to the country between 2004 and 2017. In the reports the CPT stated that torture and other forms of physical mistreatment by police and other law enforcement agencies, corruption in the entire law enforcement system, and impunity remained systemic and endemic.
There were several credible reports of torture during the year.
For example, human right defenders reported that on April 28, Popular Front Party member Niyamaddin Ahmadov was taken from the Detention Center for Administrative Detainees and driven to an unknown location with a bag over his head, where he was beaten and physically tortured in an effort to obtain an allegedly false confession concerning illegal financing of the party. There were also reports that he was subsequently beaten in Baku Detention Center No.1, where he was moved after the government opened a criminal case against him.
Human rights defenders reported the alleged torture of Popular Front Party members Fuad Gahramanli, Seymur Ahmadov, Ayaz Maharramli, Ramid Naghiyev, and Baba Suleyman, who were arrested after a major rally the night of July 14-15 in support of the army following intensive fighting on the Azerbaijan-Armenia border (also see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). The detainees’ location remained unknown for days, and they were deprived of access to lawyers and family members. Throughout their detention, friends, relatives, and lawyers were not allowed to visit for an extended period. The independent Turan News Agency reported that Gahramanli was “severely tortured” in Baku Detention Center No.1 after his arrest. Gahramanli reportedly refused the services of his independent lawyer after being forced to do so by government authorities. He was deprived of the right to call or meet with his family for months with the exception of one short call to his brother 10 days after his detention, when he informed him that he was alive. The call followed social media allegations that Gahramanli had died after being tortured in custody.
There were developments in the 2017 government arrest of more than 100 citizens in Terter who were alleged to have committed treason by engaging in espionage for Armenia. Family members and civil society activists reported that the government had tortured the accused in an effort to coerce their confessions, as a result of which up to nine detainees reportedly died. According to the independent Turan News Agency, four of the deceased were acquitted posthumously and investigators who had fabricated the charges against them were prosecuted, convicted, and received prison sentences of up to seven years. Following a closed trial of 25 individuals, at least nine remained in prison, some serving sentences of up to 20 years. On September 14, relatives of those killed or imprisoned in the case attempted to hold a protest at the Presidential Administration. They called for the release of those incarcerated, posthumous rehabilitation of those who died after being tortured, and accountability for those responsible.
There were numerous credible reports of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in custody. For example, activist Fuad Ismayilov reported that on March 7, he was beaten in Police Department No. 32 of Surakhani District. Relatives reported that on June 21, he was also beaten by police officers in the Detention Center for Administrative Detainees.
Media outlets reported the mistreatment of imprisoned Muslim Unity Movement deputy Abbas Huseynov. Huseynov conducted a hunger strike of approximately three weeks to protest the ban on family-provided food parcels because of quarantine rules, as well as the high prices for food in the prison market. In response prison officials barred Huseynov from bathing or communicating with family. The prison administration also placed him in solitary confinement.
On June 8, police used excessive force while conducting an early morning raid in a residential building in Baku. A day earlier, building residents had thrown garbage at police officers while they were detaining a neighbor for violating the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine regime. During the operation police also treated some detainees in a humiliating manner by not allowing them to dress properly before removing them from their homes. On June 9, Karim Suleymanli, one of those detained, stated that police had beaten him for five hours while he was in custody. On June 10, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that Suleymanli’s lawyer stated Suleymanli had obtained a medical report declaring that he had been severely beaten. According to Suleymanli, all 11 detained individuals were beaten in Police Department No. 29. Courts later sentenced them to administrative detention for periods of from 10 to 30 days. On June 9, Suleymanli’s sentence was postponed, and he was released because of his health condition. On June 16, the Baku Court of Appeal replaced his previous 15-day administrative detention with a fine. Following the event the Ministry of Internal Affairs dismissed one police officer for publicly insulting a local resident.
Authorities reportedly maintained an implicit ban on independent forensic examinations of detainees who claimed abuse and delayed access to an attorney. Opposition figures and other activists stated these practices made it easier for officers to mistreat detainees with impunity.
There were credible allegations that authorities forcibly committed opposition Popular Front Party member Agil Humbatov to a psychiatric hospital in Baku twice after he criticized the government. Human rights NGOs reported he was institutionalized on March 31 after posting a social media message criticizing the country’s leadership on March 30. On April 1, he reportedly was released; however, on April 2, he was reinstitutionalized after posting a message complaining authorities had forcibly placed him in the psychiatric hospital due to his political views. On July 1, he was released.
There were credible reports that Azerbaijani forces abused soldiers and civilians in their custody (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2020 for Armenia). For example, on December 2, Human Rights Watch reported that Azerbaijani forces inhumanly treated numerous ethnic Armenian soldiers captured in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. According to the report, Azerbaijani forces subjected the detainees to physical abuse and humiliation in actions that were captured on videos and widely circulated on social media. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify the locations and times but was confident that none of the videos was posted before October-November.
Human Rights Watch closely examined 14 such cases and spoke with the families of five detainees whose abuse was depicted. According to one family’s account, on October 2, the parents of a youth named Areg (age 19) lost contact with him. On October 8, a relative alerted the family to two videos that showed Areg lying on top of an Azerbaijani tank and then sitting on the same tank and, on his captor’s orders, shouting, “Azerbaijan” and calling the Armenian prime minister insulting names. In mid-October according to the Human Rights Watch report, three more videos with the same person appeared on social media. One showed Areg, apparently in the back seat of a vehicle wearing a flowery smock and a thick black blindfold, repeating on his captors’ orders, “long live President Aliyev” and “Karabakh is Azerbaijan” and also cursing Armenia’s leader.
On December 10, an Amnesty International report authenticated 22 of the dozens of videos circulating on social media, which included–among other abuses–the mistreatment of Armenian prisoners and other captives (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2020 for Armenia). According to Amnesty International, seven of the videos showed what it termed “violations” by “Azerbaijani forces.” According to the report, in some videos, Azerbaijani soldiers kicked and beat bound and blindfolded ethnic Armenian prisoners and forced them to make statements opposing their government.
As of year’s end, authorities had arrested four soldiers for desecrating bodies and grave sites.
According to Human Rights Watch, Azerbaijani armed forces reportedly used artillery missiles, aerial bombs, and cluster munitions, against Stepanakert and struck civilian infrastructure. According to the Armenian government and Armenian media reports, a diverse range of nonmilitary sites was hit, including medical emergency service centers and ambulances, food stocks, crops, livestock, electricity and gas plants, and drinking-water installations and supplies, as well as schools and preschools. According to the BBC, many homes in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s largest city, were left without electricity or water. The Azerbaijani government denied these accusations.
According to various international observers, Azerbaijani armed forces on multiple occasions struck near humanitarian organizations, such as the ICRC and HALO Trust, located in Stepanakert. On October 2, the Azerbaijani armed forces struck the emergency service administrative building in Stepanakert, wounding nine personnel and killing one. On October 14, three aircraft reportedly dropped bombs on the military hospital in Martakert, damaging the hospital and destroying nearby medical vehicles, all clearly marked as medical. On October 28, more than 15 strikes hit various areas of Stepanakert and Shusha. An Azerbaijani missile hit rescue personnel conducting humanitarian functions in Shusha, killing one person and seriously injuring five. Another missile, reportedly a high-precision, Long Range Attack (LORA) missile struck a Stepanakert hospital maternity ward. Unexploded missiles were later found inside the hospital. On November 2, an Azerbaijani UAV destroyed a fire truck transporting fresh water to civilians in the Askeran region.
PRISON AND DETENTION CENTER CONDITIONS
According to prison monitoring conducted by a reputable organization prior to the onset of COVID-19, prison conditions reportedly were sometimes harsh and potentially life threatening due to overcrowding; inadequate nutrition; deficient heating, ventilation, and sanitation; and poor medical care. Detainees also complained of inhuman conditions in the crowded basement detention facilities of local courts where they were held while awaiting their hearings. There was no reporting or evidence that conditions improved during the year.
Physical Conditions: Authorities held men and women together in pretrial detention facilities in separate blocks, and held women in separate prison facilities after sentencing. Local NGO observers reported female prisoners typically lived in better conditions, were monitored more frequently, and had greater access to training and other activities. The same NGOs noted, however, that women’s prisons suffered from many of the same problems as prisons for men. The law allows convicted juvenile offenders to be held in juvenile institutions until they reach age 20.
While the government continued to construct prison facilities, some operating Soviet-era facilities continued to fail to meet international standards. Gobustan Prison, Prison No. 3, Prison No. 14, and the penitentiary tuberculosis treatment center reportedly had the worst conditions.
Human rights advocates reported guards sometimes punished prisoners with beatings or by placing them in solitary confinement. Local and international monitors reported markedly poorer conditions at the maximum-security Gobustan Prison.
Prisoners claimed they endured lengthy confinement periods without opportunity for physical exercise. They also reported instances of cramped, overcrowded conditions; inadequate ventilation; poor sanitary facilities; inedible food; and insufficient access to medical care. Former prisoners and family members of imprisoned activists reported prisoners often had to pay bribes to meet visiting family members, watch television, use toilets or shower rooms, or receive food from outside the detention facility. Although the law permits detainees to receive daily packages of food to supplement officially provided food, authorities at times reportedly restricted access of prisoners and detainees to family-provided food parcels. Some prisons and detention centers did not provide access to potable water.
Administration: While most prisoners reported they could submit complaints to judicial authorities and the Ombudsman’s Office without censorship, prison authorities regularly read prisoners’ correspondence, monitored meetings between lawyers and clients, and restricted some lawyers from taking documents into and out of detention facilities. The Ombudsman’s Office reported that it conducted systematic visits and investigations into complaints, but activists claimed the office regularly dismissed prisoner complaints in politically sensitive cases.
Authorities limited visits by attorneys and family members, especially to prisoners widely considered to be incarcerated for political reasons. For example, family members of political activists detained after the July 14-15 proarmy rally in Baku stated that authorities illegally prohibited communication with their relatives for the first several weeks of their detention.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted some prison visits by international and local organizations, including the ICRC and CPT.
Authorities generally permitted the ICRC access to prisoners of war and civilian internees held in connection with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The ICRC conducted regular visits throughout the year to provide for protection of prisoners under international humanitarian law and regularly facilitated the exchange of messages between prisoners and their families to help them re-establish and maintain contact.
A human rights community prison-monitoring group, known as the Public Committee, was allowed access to prisons without prior notification to the Penitentiary Service.
Improvements: The Ministry of Justice reported that more than 2500 Azerbaijanis avoided incarceration during the year with the use of GPS-enabled electronic bracelets.
D. ARBITRARY ARREST OR DETENTION
Although the law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of persons to challenge the lawfulness of their arrest or detention in court, the government generally did not observe these requirements.
NGOs reported the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service detained individuals who exercised their rights to fundamental freedoms. Several citizens reported they had been summoned to police departments for their posts on social media critical of the government’s response to COVID-19, and many were forced to delete their posts. For example, media outlets reported that Facebook-user Rahim Khoyski was called to a police department for making recommendations to the government on his social media account to freeze debts and loans, to stop collecting taxes from entrepreneurs, and to provide monetary assistance to citizens who had lost their income. Police warned him not to make such recommendations and ordered him to delete his post.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
The law provides that persons detained, arrested, or accused of a crime be accorded due process, including being advised immediately of their rights and the reason for their arrest. In all cases deemed to be politically motivated, due process was not respected, and accused individuals were convicted under a variety of spurious criminal charges.
According to the law, detainees must appear before a judge within 48 hours of arrest, and the judge may issue a warrant either placing the detainee in pretrial detention or under house arrest, or releasing the detainee. At times, however, authorities detained individuals for longer than 48 hours without warrants. The initial 48-hour arrest period may be extended to 96 hours under extenuating circumstances. During pretrial detention or house arrest, the Prosecutor General’s Office must complete its investigation. Pretrial detention is limited to three months but may be extended by a judge up to 18 months, depending on the alleged crime and the needs of the investigation. There were reports of detainees not being informed promptly of the charges against them during the year.
A formal bail system existed, but judges did not utilize it during the year.
The law provides for access to a lawyer from the time of detention, but there were reports that authorities frequently denied lawyers’ access to clients in both politically motivated and routine cases. Human rights defenders stated that many of the political activists detained after the July 14-15 rally were denied access to effective legal representation and were forced to rely on state-appointed lawyers who did not adequately defend their clients due to fear of government reprisal.
Access to counsel was poor, particularly outside of Baku. Although entitled to legal counsel by law, indigent detainees often did not have such access. The Collegium of Advocates, however, undertook several initiatives to expand legal representation outside the capital, including the establishment of offices in regional Azerbaijan Service and Assessment Network centers to provide legal services to local citizens.
By law detained individuals have the right to contact relatives and have a confidential meeting with their lawyers immediately following detention. Prisoners’ family members reported that authorities occasionally restricted visits, especially to persons in pretrial detention, and withheld information regarding detainees. Days sometimes passed before families could obtain information regarding detained relatives. Authorities reportedly used family members as leverage to put pressure on selected individuals to stop them from reporting police abuse. Family members of some political activists detained after the July 14-15 rally stated that authorities illegally prohibited communication with their relatives for several weeks to limit the dissemination of information and to hide traces of torture.
Azerbaijani and Armenian officials alleged that soldiers on both sides remained detained following intensive fighting in the fall (see sections 1.a. and 1.c.). As of year’s end, two exchanges resulted in the return of 57 ethnic Armenian detainees and 14 Azerbaijani detainees. ICRC representatives visited a number of the detainees and continued to work with the sides to develop accurate lists and encourage the exchange of any remaining detainees.
Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities often made arrests based on spurious charges, such as resisting police, illegal possession of drugs or weapons, tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, abuse of authority, or inciting public disorder. Local organizations and international NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticized the government for arresting individuals exercising their fundamental rights and noted that authorities frequently fabricated charges against them.
For example, police regularly detained opposition and other activists mainly on the charges of “violating the quarantine regime,” “resisting police,” or “petty hooliganism,” and subsequently took them to local courts where judges sentenced them to periods of administrative detention ranging from 10 to 30 days. Those charged with criminal offenses were sentenced to lengthier periods of incarceration (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees). Human rights defenders asserted these arrests were one method authorities used to intimidate activists and dissuade others from engaging in activism. For example, 16 members of the opposition Popular Front Party were arrested and sentenced to administrative detention under such charges from mid-March to mid-May. More than 15 Popular Front Party members were sentenced to administrative detention after the July 14-15 proarmy rally in Baku.
Pretrial Detention: Authorities held persons in pretrial detention for up to 18 months, the maximum allowed by law. The Prosecutor General’s Office routinely extended the initial three-month pretrial detention period permitted by law in successive increments of several months until the government completed an investigation.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The law provides that persons arrested or detained, regardless of whether on criminal or other grounds, are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis, length, or arbitrary nature of their detention and obtain prompt release and compensation if found to have been unlawfully detained. The judiciary, however, did not rule independently in such cases, and while sentences were occasionally reduced, the outcomes often appeared predetermined.
E. DENIAL OF FAIR PUBLIC TRIAL
Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, judges were not functionally independent of the executive branch. While the government made a number of judicial reforms in 2019, the reforms did not foster judicial independence. The judiciary remained largely corrupt and inefficient. Many verdicts were legally unsupportable and largely unrelated to the evidence presented during a trial, with outcomes frequently appearing predetermined. For example, following the July 14-15 proarmy rally, judges sentenced Popular Front Party board members Fuad Gahramanli, Mammad Ibrahim, Bakhtiyar Imanov, and Ayaz Maharramli from three to four months of pretrial detention, although these political activists did not take part in the rally (see section 1.c.). Courts often failed to investigate allegations of torture and inhuman treatment of detainees in police custody.
The Ministry of Justice controlled the Judicial Legal Council, which appoints the judicial selection committee that administers the judicial selection process and examination and oversees long-term judicial training. The council consists of six judges, a prosecutor, a lawyer, a council representative, a Ministry of Justice representative, and a legal scholar.
Credible reports indicated that judges and prosecutors took instructions from the Presidential Administration and the Ministry of Justice, particularly in politically sensitive cases. There were also credible allegations that judges routinely accepted bribes.
In April 2019 President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree promulgating limited judicial sector reforms. The decree called for an increase in the salary of judges, an increase in the number of judicial positions (from 600 to 800), audio recordings of all court proceedings, and establishment of specialized commercial courts for entrepreneurship disputes. The decree also ordered increased funding for pro bono legal aid. Some measures called for in the decree, such as the establishment of commercial courts and a raise in judicial salaries, were implemented, while others remained pending at year’s end.
The law requires public trials except in cases involving state, commercial, or professional secrets or confidential, personal, or family matters. The law mandates the presumption of innocence in criminal cases. It also mandates the right of defendants to be informed promptly of charges; to a fair, timely, and public trial; to be present at the trial; to communicate with an attorney of choice (or have one provided at public expense if unable to pay); to provide adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense; to free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals; to confront witnesses and present witnesses’ evidence at trial; and not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Both defendants and prosecutors have the right to appeal. Authorities did not respect these provisions in many cases that were widely considered to be politically motivated. Information regarding trial times and locations was generally available. Due to COVID-19 restrictions for most of the year, courts allowed only a small number of individuals to attend hearings, limiting public access to trials.
Although the constitution prescribes equal status for prosecutors and defense attorneys, judges often favored prosecutors when assessing motions, oral statements, and evidence submitted by defense counsel, without regard to the merits of their respective arguments. Members of opposition parties and civil society activists were consistently denied counsel of their choice for days, while government-appointed lawyers represented them, but not in their interest. For example, during the trial of opposition figure Tofig Yagublu, which continued from July 24 until September 3, the judge reportedly did not conduct an unbiased review of the case and repeatedly denied the motions of Yagublu’s lawyers. The judge denied the defendant’s requests for additional information relevant to the case and declined to consider misconduct by law enforcement authorities. For example, the judge did not satisfy a motion by Yagublu’s lawyers to allow data from telecommunications companies. Additionally, police confiscated Yagublu’s cell phone and deleted video footage he had taken during the alleged incident. The judge refused Yagublu’s lawyers’ motions to restore those videos. Judges also reserved the right to remove defense lawyers in civil cases for “good cause.” In criminal proceedings, judges may remove defense lawyers because of a conflict of interest or upon a defendant’s request for a change of counsel.
By law only members of the Collegium of Advocates (bar association) are able to represent citizens in any legal process, whether criminal, civil, or administrative. Representatives of the legal community and NGOs criticized the law, asserting it restricted citizens’ access to legal representation and empowered the government-dominated bar association to prevent human rights lawyers from representing individuals in politically motivated cases by limiting the number of lawyers in good standing who were willing to represent such individuals.
In February, three NGOs reported that, as a result of various punitive measures, more than 24 attorneys had been deprived of the opportunity to practice their profession since 2005. The number of defense lawyers willing and able to accept politically sensitive cases remained small due to various measures taken by authorities, including by the Collegium of Advocates. Such measures included disciplinary proceedings resulting in the censure, suspension, and in some cases disbarment of human rights lawyers. In November 2019 the Collegium suspended the license and initiated disbarment proceedings against lawyer Shahla Humbatova for reasons widely considered to be politically motivated.
In some cases the Collegium of Advocates dropped politically motivated proceedings against lawyers, such as in August those against Zibeyda Sadigova and Bahruz Bayramov. In other cases, however, after dropping proceedings against a lawyer, the Collegium engaged in other punitive measures against the same lawyer. For example, after dropping administrative proceedings against Elchin Sadigov in January, the Collegium issued him a warning and, on September 25, deprived him of the right to continue working as an independent lawyer. Only independent lawyers may represent a client immediately. Those such as Sadigov, deprived of this independent status, are required first to obtain permission to represent a client through a government-approved law firm, which often took days. During this time government-appointed lawyers represented clients and could take action without the approval of or consultation with their clients.
The Collegium issued two other warnings to lawyers during the year: on June 11, to Javad Javadov for sharing information concerning the alleged mistreatment of his client, Kerim Suleymanli, by police (see section 1.c.), and on July 13, to Nemat Karimli for publicly sharing information concerning the alleged October 2019 torture of Tofig Yagublu without waiting for the results of the official investigation.
The majority of the country’s human rights defense lawyers were based in Baku. This continued to make it difficult for individuals living outside of Baku to receive timely and quality legal services, since local lawyers were unwilling or unable to take on such cases.
During the year the Collegium increased its membership from 1,708 to 1,791. Human rights defenders asserted the new members were hesitant to work on human rights-related cases due to fear they would be sanctioned by the Collegium. Some activists and candidate lawyers stated the examination process was biased and that examiners failed candidates who had previously been active in civil society on various pretexts.
In some instances courts rejected the admission of legal evidence. For example, on February 21, the Baku Court of Appeal ruled that video recordings presented by National Assembly candidate Bakhtiyar Hajiyev in support of his election complaint were inadmissible because they were recorded without the permission of the precinct election commissions responsible for conducting the elections in his district. On February 26, the Supreme Court upheld this verdict.
Although the constitution prohibits the use of illegally obtained evidence, some defendants claimed that police and other authorities obtained testimony through torture or abuse. Human rights monitors also reported courts did not investigate allegations of abuse, and there was no independent forensic investigator to substantiate assertions of abuse.
Investigations often focused on obtaining confessions rather than gathering physical evidence against suspects. Serious crimes brought before the courts frequently ended in conviction, since judges generally sought only a minimal level of proof and collaborated closely with prosecutors.
Human rights advocates reported courts sometimes failed to provide interpreters despite the constitutional right of an accused person to interpretation. Defendants are entitled to contract interpreters during hearings, with expenses covered by the state budget.
There were no verbatim transcripts of judicial proceedings. Although some of the newer courts in Baku made audio recordings of some proceedings, courts generally did not record most court testimonies, oral arguments, and judicial decisions. Instead, the court recording officer generally decided the content of notes, which tended to be sparse. A provision of an April 2019 presidential decree addressed the problem but had not been implemented by year’s end.
The country has a military court system with civilian judges. The Military Court retains original jurisdiction over any case related to war or military service.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
NGO estimates of political prisoners and detainees at year’s end ranged from at least 90 to 146. Political prisoners and detainees included journalists and bloggers (see section 2.a.), political and social activists (see section 3), religious activists (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report), individuals arrested in connection with the Ganja and Terter cases (see section 1.c.), and the relative of a journalist/activist in exile (see section 1.f.).
In a particularly high profile case, on March 22, a member of the Coordination Center of National Council of Democratic Forces and the Musavat Party, Tofig Yagublu, was arrested and ordered held for three months in pretrial detention for “hooliganism” in connection with a car accident. Human rights defenders considered the arrest a staged provocation against Yagublu. On September 3, the Nizami District Court convicted Yagublu and sentenced him to four years and three months in prison. On September 18, the Baku Court of Appeal released Yagublu to house arrest after he was on a hunger strike for 17 days. At year’s end Yagublu was awaiting a ruling on his appeal.
In another case, on April 16, Popular Front Party activist Niyamaddin Ahmadov was detained and sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention. After serving his administrative sentence, on May 18, he was sentenced to four months’ pretrial detention, allegedly on the criminal charge of funding terrorism. Human rights defenders considered the case politically motivated. He remained under pretrial detention at year’s end.
From July 14-15, during a spontaneous rally of more than 20,000 persons supporting the army during fighting along the border with Armenia, a group entered the National Assembly and reportedly caused minor damage before being removed. Some protesters allegedly clashed with police and damaged police cars. On July 16, President Aliyev accused the Popular Front Party of instigating protesters to enter the National Assembly and stated law enforcement bodies would investigate the party.
Human rights defenders reported that authorities used these events to justify the arrest of political activists, including those who did not attend the rally. Law enforcement officials opened criminal cases against at least 16 members of the Popular Front Party, one member of the opposition Azerbaijan Democracy and Welfare Movement, and two members of the Muslim Unity Movement. The formal charges against the remaining individuals included damaging property, violating public order, and using force against a government official. In addition Popular Front Party activists Fuad Gahramanli and Mammad Ibrahim were accused of trying to seize power by force in an alleged attempted coup. Popular Front Party member Mahammad Imanli, along with Mammad Ibrahim’s son and ruling party member Mehdi Ibrahimov, were also accused of spreading COVID-19 during the demonstration, which included thousands of demonstrators who were not wearing masks.
On August 19, the Khatai District Court released Mehdi Ibrahimov, placing him under house arrest. On November 16, the Sabayil District Court released 21 individuals arrested after the July 14-15 rally, placing them under house arrest. These individuals included 12 members of the Popular Front Party and two members of the Muslim Unity Movement. On December 7, the remaining 15 individuals arrested after the July 14-15 rally, including three Popular Front Party activists and a member of the Azerbaijan Democracy and Welfare Movement, were released and placed under house arrest. On December 1, the Sabunchu District Court convicted and sentenced Mahammad Imanli to one year in prison.
There were developments during the year in long-standing cases of persons considered to have been incarcerated on politically motivated grounds. On April 23, the Plenum of the Supreme Court acquitted opposition Republican Alternative (REAL) party chairperson Ilgar Mammadov and human rights defender Rasul Jafarov. As a result Mammadov and Jafarov no longer faced restrictions based on their criminal records, including restrictions on seeking political office. The court ruled the government must pay 234,000 manat ($138,000) in compensation to Mammadov and 57,400 manat ($33,900) to Jafarov for moral damages, and both could seek additional compensation in civil court. The government paid these compensations to Mammadov and Jafarov. In 2014 the ECHR ruled that Mammadov’s arrest and detention were politically motivated. In 2017 the ECHR ruled that Mammadov had been denied a fair trial. Six others considered to be former political prisoners whose acquittal was ordered by the ECHR were waiting court decisions at year’s end.
On March 17, after serving three years of his six-year prison term, authorities released investigative journalist Afghan Mukhtarli under the condition that he leave the country and relocate to Germany immediately after his release. He remained in Germany at year’s end (also see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2020 for Georgia).
Political prisoners and detainees faced varied restrictions. Former political prisoners stated prison officials limited access to reading materials and communication with their families. Authorities provided international humanitarian organizations access to political prisoners and detainees.
POLITICALLY MOTIVATED REPRISAL AGAINST INDIVIDUALS LOCATED OUTSIDE THE COUNTRY
There were reports of government abuse of international law enforcement tools, such as those of Interpol (the International Criminal Police Organization), in attempts to detain foreign residents who were activists. There also were reports that the government targeted dissidents and journalists who lived outside of the country through kidnappings, digital harassment, and intimidation of family members who remained in the country.
In January authorities in Gdansk, Poland, detained Dashgyn Agalarli, an Azerbaijani national with refugee status in Norway, reportedly due to an Interpol notice submitted by the Azerbaijan government. He was held for three days and then released on bail. According to news reports in September, however, he remained in Poland and was unable to leave the country.
In December 2019 the State Migration Service reported that political emigrant and government critic Elvin Isayev was deported to Azerbaijan from Ukraine and arrested upon arrival. According to RFE/RL, Ukraine’s State Migration Service and Prosecutor General’s Office denied having ordered his deportation. Isayev was charged with incitement to riot and for open calls for action against the state. On September 8, the Prosecutor General’s Office alleged that seven other political emigrants residing in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Switzerland participated in these criminal acts, together with Isayev. On the basis of the Prosecutor General’s Office’s petition, the Nasimi District Court ordered the arrest of all seven emigrants. The emigrants subject to this order included Ordukhan Babirov, Tural Sadigli, Gurban Mammadov, Orkhan Agayev, Rafael Piriyev, Ali Hasanaliyev, and Suleyman Suleymanli. The Prosecutor General’s Office stated that it requested an international search for these individuals from Interpol. On October 30, the Baku Court on Grave Crimes convicted and sentenced Elvin Isayev to eight years in prison.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
Citizens have the right to file lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, human rights violations. All citizens have the right to appeal to the ECHR within six months of exhausting all domestic legal options, including an appeal to and ruling by the Supreme Court.
Citizens exercised the right to appeal local court rulings to the ECHR and brought claims of government violations of commitments under the European Convention on Human Rights. The government’s compliance with ECHR decisions was mixed; activists stated the government generally paid compensation but failed to release prisoners in response to ECHR decisions. In some cases considered to be politically motivated, the government withheld compensation ordered by the ECHR. For example, on May 7, journalist and former political prisoner Khadija Ismayilova told media that the government owed her 44,500 euros ($53,400) in total based on decisions of the ECHR (see section 4).
NGOs reported authorities did not respect the laws governing eminent domain and expropriation of property. Homeowners often reported receiving compensation well below market value for expropriated property and had little legal recourse. NGOs also reported many citizens did not trust the court system and were therefore reluctant to pursue compensation claims.
F. ARBITRARY OR UNLAWFUL INTERFERENCE WITH PRIVACY, FAMILY, HOME, OR CORRESPONDENCE
The law prohibits arbitrary invasions of privacy and monitoring of correspondence and other private communications. The government generally did not respect these legal prohibitions.
While the constitution allows for searches of residences only with a court order or in cases specifically provided for by law, authorities often conducted searches without warrants. It was widely reported that the State Security Service and the Ministry of Internal Affairs monitored telephone and internet communications (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom), particularly those of foreigners, prominent youth active online, some political and business figures, and persons engaged in international communication. Human rights lawyers asserted that the postal service purposely lost or misplaced communications with the ECHR to inhibit proceedings against the government.
Throughout the year some websites and social media sources leaked videos of virtual meetings and recorded conversations of opposition figures. It was widely believed that government law enforcement or intelligence services were the source of the leaked videos.
In an effort to intimidate and embarrass an activist and member of the local municipal council who advocated more transparent governance, local authorities hung photographs of Vafa Nagi in her swimsuit with the caption “Lady Gaga” throughout her village (see section 3, Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups).
Police continued to intimidate, harass, and sometimes incarcerate family members of suspected criminals, independent journalists, activists, and political opposition members and leaders, as well as employees and leaders of certain NGOs. For example, human rights defenders considered Emin Sagiyev to have been incarcerated due to the activities of his brother-in-law, exiled journalist Turkel Azerturk.
There were reports authorities fired individuals from jobs or had individuals fired in retaliation for the political or civic activities of family members inside or outside the country.