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Analysis: Azerbaijan's 'Magnificent Seven' Stand Trial

The so-called preliminary hearing in the trial of seven Azerbaijani oppositionists charged for their involvement in the clashes in Baku on 15-16 October in the wake of the disputed presidential election opened in Azerbaijan's Court for Serious Crimes on 7 May. Although such preliminary hearings generally last no longer than one day, this one entered its 11th day on 26 May, albeit in the absence of the defendants, who refused on 24 May to participate in further sessions, citing numerous procedural violations.

The seven defendants -- Musavat party Deputy Chairmen Arif Hadjili and Ibrahim Ibrahimli; People's Party Chairman Panakh Huseinov; Umid party Chairman Igbal Agazade; Democratic Party of Azerbaijan Secretary-General Sardar Djalaloglu; Etimad Asadov, chairman of the society of handicapped veterans of the Karabakh war; and Rauf Arifoglu, editor of the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat" -- are charged with their role in the Baku clashes and with resisting the police. They were arrested in the wake of the presidential ballot and have been held in custody ever since, during which time they were subjected to beatings and torture. (Ibrahimli suffered a broken leg and rib, according to Turan on 26 January.) They have launched two hunger strikes, in December and February, to demand, first, that the authorities comply with an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) proposal that they be released on bail pending trial, and then to protest the verdicts handed down in a series of trials that got under way in February of other persons also charged with participation in the postelection clashes. None of the 130 or more persons tried was acquitted; 20 received jail terms of between three and six years.

The seven oppositionists were presented with the findings of the preliminary investigation into their alleged crimes in early March, and subsequently lodged a formal protest that those materials did not include video recordings of the questioning of witnesses for the prosecution. All seven have rejected the case against them as fabricated for purely political reasons.

Arifoglu told Turan on 26 April that the prosecution has failed to produce any evidence of wrongdoing on the part of himself or his fellow detainees. He said that nine police officers who initially testified against him did so under torture and subsequently retracted that testimony. As for his role in the 16 October clashes, Arifoglu said, "I was trying to convince readers that power in Azerbaijan can be changed by democratic methods...I appealed to them to combat" falsification of the outcome of the ballot. (Musavat party Chairman Isa Qambar continues to insist that he, rather than Ilham Aliyev, won the election. Qambar was quoted by the online daily on 22 May as saying that he polled over 50 percent of the vote. The international election observation mission mounted by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Council of Europe noted serious flaws in the election, but stopped short of querying the official returns that gave Ilham Aliyev almost 80 percent of the vote.)

Azerbaijani Prosecutor-General Zakir Garalov assured journalists on 6 May, the day before the preliminary hearing began, that the trial would be free and fair, Turan reported. But both the defendants and their supporters expressed skepticism. They also protested that the courtroom selected for the hearing can accommodate only 46 people, and that many journalists from opposition publications are excluded from the proceedings, ostensibly because of the limited space available.

On 24 May, Arifoglu dismissed outright the theoretical possibility that the trial will indeed be fair and impartial, reported the following day. Arifoglu pointed out that Parviz Ibaev, the son of presiding judge Makhmud Ibaev, is an employee of the Prosecutor-General's Office, and that consequently Ibaev senior will not risk jeopardizing his son's career by daring to question the prosecution's case.

Court officials rejected on 24 May a petition by the defendants' lawyers that Ibaev be replaced by another judge, whereupon Democratic Party Chairman Djalaloglu announced that all seven defendants were leaving the courtroom -- where they were kept behind bars -- "because we are not prepared to participate in this farce." The seven refused to take part in the proceedings either on 25 or 26 May; their lawyers are preparing to appeal to the UN, the Council of Europe, and the OSCE to intervene. According to one of the lawyers, Tarlan Azaev, the judge and prosecutors have violated some 50 articles of the Criminal-Procedural Code in the three weeks since the preliminary hearing began.

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