Azerbaijani opposition leader Ilqar Mammadov was arrested on February 4 and charged with organization of mass disorder, in relation to protests in the town of Ismayilli, 150 kilometers northwest of the capital, Baku. The chairman of the opposition REAL movement, Mammadov was arrested alongside another prominent opposition leader, Tofiq Yaqublu. Both men could face up to three years in jail if found guilty. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the arrests and the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan has expressed concern. Mammadov has written an open letter from prison, which has been passed to RFE/RL. The letter appears in full below.
“Here in prison it is particularly striking to see how the international community is ridiculously trying to play by civilized rules with the rich Azerbaijani dictatorship, while the latter is laughing right in the face of that community and of its own citizens.
Twenty minutes after the end of a milestone voting on political prisoners at the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE), which Azerbaijani authorities won by a margin of Russian MPs and a few corrupt or blindfolded European politicians, a major political uprising took place in the town of Ismayilli, ironically resulting with the expansion of the circle of political prisoners.
Formal charges against me are also linked to that uprising. I visited Ismayilli shortly during calm daytime between two nights of popular clashes with police. I was there to observe the situation and report to the public my considerations, i.e. to perform precisely the function of civil society and political leaders. Now, Azerbaijani authorities accuse me of organizing that spontaneous, but unfortunately violent protest against corruption.
I am thankful to all international organizations, prominent EU commissioners, and politicians who right away characterized this arrest as political, and demanded my immediate release. They certainly know what is going on. To those people who may shortsightedly take for serious the words of authorities about an “investigation,” I address the rest of the article, which describes how my episodes of activities during the past one year annoyed dictator [Ilham] Aliyev, and how my participation at the forthcoming presidential election could spoil his traditional farce.
In early 2012, “The Washington Post” and Radio Liberty published a series of reports by investigative journalists about corruption involving the closest family members of Ilham Aliyev. It appeared that his children, including underage son, own property and businesses worth hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars -- some around the world, and some in Azerbaijan via companies registered worldwide.
Aliyev reacted to these publications not only in a number of repressive ways against the journalists, but also introduced legislative change in June prohibiting public access to company ownership information. Now, Aliyevs can own the country and steal oil revenues through short-lived local companies, and without registering their companies abroad.
The civic organization that I lead -- REAL Movement -- was the most outspoken critic of the change. We attempted to stage a protest in front of the politically sterile parliament, but I was detained by police, and the law was passed smoothly. I reported this incident to the New-York-based Revenue Watch Institute’s Advisory Board, which I belong to.
That happened in June. Just after the summer break, the parliament introduced severe financial penalties on this kind of “unauthorized” public protests. As a number of critics on social media (TV and radio are fully censored) used tough language against the parliament’s rubber-stamp role in the adoption of this and all other laws, at the very sitting that voted for the penalties, the chairman Ogtay Asadov announced measures “to protect the reputation of parliament from public insults.”
I responded to that on my popular political blog by comparing the institutional role of the parliament to that of the medieval zoos of our shahs. They used to throw opponents into those zoo cells to feed the animals and to scare other residents.
In a true manner of mafia boss, Adil Aliyev -- an MP, former police chief, and brother of even a higher- ranking security official -- publicly threatened to behead me for this blog posting. About 40 other MPs promised to file a lawsuit. However, this campaign suddenly stopped as if they got a “wait” signal from the very top. By the way, Vice-President of the European Commission Nelli Kroes raised the issue of threats against me -- probably to demonstrate that the world is aware of such nasty ideas.
A month and a half later, I joined thousands of youth protesting the record level of noncombat death in the army. This unauthorized protest turned to be a great success as it put a lot of moral pressure on the authorities.
Already after that action I felt that authorities plan to arrest me. Nevertheless, after the first night of anticorruption clashes in Ismayilli, I visited the town to see what has happened. My interest was legitimate not only because of my public status, but also because 11 month prior to that similar clashes took place in Guba, another provincial town. I had characterized those as a clear manifestation of crisis of the current over-centralized local government system, and called for urgent reforms empowering municipalities to be elected. After Guba, I had also predicted that since the crisis was a systemic one, new outbreaks were inevitable. I had said all that to the Voice of America’s 15 minutes video broadcast.
Ismayilli events just supported those observations and conclusions. I spent less than two hours in Ismayilli, in the afternoon, when the town was still calm before the second night of clashes with police. That all happened on January 23 and 24.
Five days later, on 28 January I published on my blog scandalous information that totally outraged the authorities. Despite initial assurances by presidentially appointed governor of Ismayilli that the hotel burnt during the events had no relation to him or his close people, official data that I published confirmed ownership of his nephew (the son of the minister of Social Protection and Labor) over that property. It was the nephew who actually had provoked the public anger on January 23. This publication exploded the information space of Azerbaijan, and brought my blog to the 67th place in the global ranking of LiveJournal blogs (17,000 unique visitors, against previous record of 6,000, and daily average of 500).
Naturally, the next day I was summoned by the prosecutor’s office, which suddenly found “facts” about my instigation of protests in Ismayilli. Five days later, they instructed two “witnesses” to give “evidence” against me and arrested me for 2 months under charges that may lead to seven years of imprisonment.
The last, not the least, dimension of the case is that in early January, the REAL movement decided to nominate my candidacy for the presidential election, and had publicly announced the nomination. A formal public event endorsing that decision would be held on February 9. The national poll is scheduled for mid-October.
These are a few episodes of the past 12 months. My record of political and civil society leadership is much longer. In the past 15 years I have met numerous top and well-known politicians from around the world – U.S. senators, members of the European Parliament, ministers, prime ministers, and presidents -- to discuss issues of regional security, development, and democracy. As one of the most outspoken advocates of Azerbaijan's Euro-Atlantic integration, peaceful resolution of the Karabakh conflict, and real democratic change I have contributed speeches and papers to countless conferences across Europe and United States.
Precisely at the time when the expansion of the REAL Movement gained new momentum as a result of our persistent struggle for the above goals and REAL nominated me as presidential [candidate], the dictatorship locked me up in this prison.
Yes, we live in a totally deformed world where dictatorship imposes visa restrictions against a PACE rapporteur on political prisoners, and two weeks after successful defeat of the latter's report, comfortably puts an opposition presidential candidate in prison. Two decades of continuous failure to advance democratic institutions in Azerbaijan within the framework of international organizations, and loose inter-government agreements and in fact backsliding since 2003, demands a new approach to the issue of political prisoners.
We should not only maintain a list of political prisoners which the government happily refreshes in order to keep the fear alive in the society, but also we must compile a list of officials directly involved in this conveyer of production of political prisoners and discriminate [against] them internationally and publicly, name by name. I call on the European Parliament, the U.S. Congress, and national parliaments to impose immediate visa, travel, and asset restrictions on these officials.
I believe that the procedures of the European Court of Human Rights should be adjusted to envisage a fast, if not instant, review of seemingly political cases in countries under political monitoring.
However, even that is not a perfect solution, as the root cause of complexity lies in the dictatorial nature of the Azerbaijani government. As a result of the proposed shift in strategy, some existing but less visible problems will aggravate. For example, I have five lawyers now -- brave, honest, and experienced gentlemen who kindly agreed to help me. But there is a political limit on what they can do. In the country where only one state-controlled Bar Association is permitted to function, they risk their license if they push “too hard.” One of them has been back to work just a few months ago -- after one year of suspension for doing his job too well. And they are tasked not only with my [needs] from prison, but with such an end to the case that would let me run for presidency in October. Yet, the ECHR is the only judicial hope.
I particularly appreciate COE Secretary-General Thornbjorn Jagland's telephone call to my lawyers -- a sign that this case in given an exceptional priority at the COE, and probably at the ECHR. Now we need a mechanism that would make every political case a priority for the ECHR.