An Azerbaijani regional court handed down prison terms on March 17 to two prominent opposition politicians for having simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ilqar Mammadov, leader of the opposition group ReAl (Republican Alternative), was sentenced to seven years and Musavat Party Deputy Chairman Tofiq Yaqublu to five years in prison on charges of "having organized or participated in mass disorders entailing arson and pogroms
" and resorting to violence endangering the life of police officers" for which the prosecution failed to provide any convincing evidence.
The European Union has expressed concern
at the sentences, noting "serious misgivings on the part of the international community over the fairness" of the trial.
The charges against Mammadov and Yaqublu related to unrest and protests on January 23-24, 2013, in the provincial town of Ismayilli, 200 kilometers west of Baku. Some 2,000 outraged residents took to the streets late on January 23 and set fire to a motel/bordello and vehicles belonging to Vugar Alekperov, the nephew of local governor Natiq Alekperov, after an inebriated motel employee drove his car into a parked vehicle and then assaulted its owner.
Mammadov and Yaqublu traveled to Ismayilli on January 24, together with Nicat Melikov, a journalist from the independent daily "Zerkalo," and ReAl Executive Secretary Natiq Cafarli, to assess the situation there, arriving in the late afternoon. At that juncture, the town was quiet. (The website 1news.az, which is believed to belong to a member of the presidential administration, had reported at midday on January 24 that the confrontations between police and residents were over.) Mammadov and Yaqublu departed after about one hour, before some 100-200 residents took to the streets again to demand Natiq Alekperov's resignation
, and clashed with local police.
On January 29, Azerbaijan's Prosecutor-General's Office and Interior Ministry released a joint statement accusing Mammadov and Yaqublu of having incited Ismayilli residents to resist the police. They were formally arrested
and remanded in pretrial detention on February 4. Natiq Alekperov was dismissed
as Ismayilli governor 10 days later.
The trial of Mammadov and Yaqublu, and of a further 16 Ismayilli residents similarly charged with participating in the unrest, opened
on November 30. Lawyers for the accused say the prosecution's case was based on the testimony of just a couple of witnesses who claimed to have seen Mammadov and Yaqublu inciting protesters; other witnesses withdrew testimony they had given in the course of the investigation, saying they testified under pressure. The judge rejected as irrelevant video footage of the violence in which both men were conspicuous by their absence. None of their 16 co-defendants recognized them as having been present during the clashes.
Yaqublu's lawyer Nemat Kerimli made the point that the indictments were identical, implying the two men had acted as a team the entire time they had been in the town, which had not been the case
. Mammadov's lawyer Halid Baqirov for his part characterized the proceedings as "a mockery of the law
." Both said their clients planned to appeal their sentences.
Of the remaining 16 defendants, eight were sentenced to prison terms
ranging from 2 1/2 to eight years; the others were given suspended sentences.
From the outset, political commentators and fellow oppositionists construed the arrest of Mammadov and Yaqublu as a preemptive strike against the opposition in the run-up to the October presidential election. Mammadov's ReAl designated
him its presidential candidate in February and the Central Election Commission approved
his registration application in late August, but then declined to register him as a candidate on the grounds that 4,982 of the 41,247 signatures he presented in his support were invalid, thereby reducing
the total to below the minimum 40,000 required.
Having now been convicted, Mammadov is no longer eligible to participate in national elections even after serving his prison term. ReAl nonetheless announced in January that it plans to evolve by May 2015 from a movement with some 1,200 members into a political party in order to campaign for Azerbaijan's transformation from a presidential to a parliamentary republic, and to participate in the parliamentary elections due in the fall
of that year and the presidential election in 2018.
Erkin Gadirli, the chairman of ReAl's governing council, was quoted
as saying ReAl has no intention of joining forces with any of the established opposition parties, which he criticized as ineffective and engrossed in mutual recriminations.