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Azerbaijan: Activist Becomes First Female Political Prisoner To Die In Detention

November 29, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Faina Kungurova, a 33-year-old political activist in Azerbaijan, has died in prison of apparent starvation.

A member of the opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, Kungurova was found dead in a pretrial detention cell several weeks after her arrest on charges of drug possession and distribution.

She is the first female political prisoner to die in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan's Justice Ministry waited 10 days to comment on Kungurova's death. In a November 28 statement, the ministry said Kungurova had died on the 18th, despite efforts by detention hospital officials to treat her for symptoms of "depression" and severe malnutrition.

Mehman Sadigov, an official with the Justice Ministry's prison department, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that Kungurova was arrested at the beginning of October and placed in the Shuvalan detention center. "After a few weeks, she was sent to the prison hospital, and one month later, she died," Sadigov said.

'A Healthy Woman'

Family members and associates acknowledge that Kungurova, who had served a previous prison term under horrifying conditions, may have gone on hunger strike after her detention. But authorities have failed to release the results of an official autopsy to either family or outside investigators, raising questions about how an otherwise healthy young woman died so quickly with seemingly no effective intervention from prison staff.

Typically, it can take up to several months for a person to die as a result of a hunger strike. Prison officials have occasionally responded to hunger strikes by force-feeding, although international medical conventions prohibit doctors from participating in force-feeding when the detainee is capable of understanding the consequences of refusing food.

Kungurova's sister, Zeynab Vekilova, said family members had brought food supplies to the Shuvalan detention center, but could not be sure that Kungurova had eaten any of it. Vekilova was allowed to see her sister's body, and said it was clear she had suffered.

"She was a healthy woman, and yet she died within a month," Vekilova said. "Could she have died of natural causes? I don't know. Her face had a tortured, painful expression on it."

Kungurova was detained on October 5 while standing by a highway along which the presidential motorcade was scheduled to pass, and charged with possession of drugs. Human rights activists have alleged her arrest was politically motivated, and dispute that Kungurova was involved in drug sales in any way.

Kungurova was a vocal supporter of Rasul Guliyev, the former head of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, who fled the country in 1997 and now lives in the United States in self-imposed exile. She was a visible member of the political opposition, and participated in a number of popular demonstrations protesting the regimes of both Ilham Aliyev and his father, Heydar.

Political Charges

Kungurova was arrested in 2002 on hooliganism charges supporters say were tied to her political activities. Her case gained Western attention when prison officials forced her to serve her term in all-male prison. After being placed on a Council of Europe list of political prisoners, Kungurova was finally released in May 2004.

Azerbaijan has come under mounting criticism from human rights activists, who say the country's oil wealth has allowed Ilham Aliyev to adopt increasingly authoritarian tactics with little censure from the West.

Jane Buchanan, a researcher on the South Caucasus with Human Rights Watch, called for a full investigation to determine if and to what degree prison authorities are responsible for the death of Kungurova, who leaves behind a teenage daughter.

"Human Rights Watch remains very concerned about the situation in Azerbaijan...with respect to the media, and civil society, and freedom of expression," Buchanan said. "And this most recent case of this death in custody of a female activist should be thoroughly investigated by the authorities. The cause of the death should be determined, and any responsibility that the authorities may have for her death should be investigated, and anyone found responsible should be held accountable."

Two other prisoners are reportedly on hunger strikes as well. The wife of Sakit Zahidov, a well-known satirist who is currently serving a three-year sentence -- also for drug possession -- told journalists today that her husband was on the ninth day of a fast and that his health was deteriorating rapidly. The Baku-based Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety says a second journalist, Faramaz Allahverdiyev of the "Nota Bene" newspaper, is on a hunger strike as well. Allahverdiyev is serving a two-year sentence because of a report he wrote about government infighting.

Kungurova's death is likely to draw more attention to prison conditions for political detainees. Leyla Yunus, the director of the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy, says that regardless of whether Kungurova died as a result of abuse or neglect, prison authorities and the Justice Ministry must be held accountable.

"All of us understand that Kungurova was hurt in prison," Yunus said. "For me, as a human rights defender, it's not interesting how they hurt her. Did they beat her? Did they torture her, as is usual in Azerbaijani prisons? Or did they just shut their eyes when she was in a depression and wasn't eating anything?"

(RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report.)

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