BAKU -- An opposition leader in Azerbaijan who was arrested before an unauthorized rally in Baku has told a court that he was savagely tortured in police custody.
Tofiq Yaqublu, deputy chairman of the opposition Musavat Party, has been serving a 30-day sentence since his October 19 arrest on charges of failing to obey police orders.
At a hearing before the Baku Court of Appeals on November 2, Yaqublu said prosecutors and judges in Azerbaijan are ignoring his complaints about being handcuffed and beaten by Baku police for more than an hour after his initial arrest.
Yaqublu’s daughter told RFE/RL after the hearing that Yaqublu will take his case to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights if the authorities in Azerbaijan do not “fairly investigate” his complaints and “if the perpetrators are not punished.”
Yaqublu was among dozens of opposition activists and supporters who were detained before and during the October 19 protest in central Baku.
Police say about 200 people participated in the demonstration. They say that out of 60 people who were detained, 42 were released with a “warning.”
Authorities say Yaqublu and 17 others received jail sentences ranging from 15-30 days on “administrative charges.”
Videos on social media of the October 19 crackdown show helmeted police with batons using force to brutally drag or carry demonstrators away, sometimes striking them in the face with bare fists before throwing them into police vehicles.
Ali Karimli, the head of the opposition Popular Front Party (APFP), was also among those who were detained. He was released on the evening of October 19.
Right To Assemble...'Where Authorities Say'
Authorities had refused to grant permission for the rally within Azerbaijan’s capital, saying the demonstration would only be legal if it was conducted in a village outside of Baku.
But protest organizers from the National Council of Democratic Forces (DQMS), an umbrella organization of Azerbaijani opposition groups, said forcing the rally to take place at a remote location was a violation of their right to peaceably assemble.
Yaqublu’s lawyer, Nemat Karimli, says Azerbaijan's constitution is supposed to guarantee citizens the right to freely gather in public spaces where they wish.
"The European Court of Human Rights also says in its rulings that there should be very serious grounds for restricting this freedom,” Karimli said. “It cannot be restricted in general terms.”
Giorgi Gogia, the associate director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch, also has criticized Azerbaijani officials for refusing to allow the opposition to hold peaceful demonstrations -- saying authorities “continue to display blatant contempt for freedom of assembly in the country.”
In defiance, the NCDF called for opposition supporters to carry out their original plan to rally in central Baku on October 19 -- a demonstration calling for a reduction of utility rates and for the release of political prisoners.
Yaqublu, a coordinator for the DQMS, has previously accused President Ilham Aliyev of being behind detentions of political prisoners in Azerbaijan.
He has charged that politically motivated arrests are sanctioned by Aliyev himself, and that Aliyev personally decides which prisoners should be released and which should remain in jail.
Yaqublu told the Baku Court of Appeals on November 2 that he was taken to the headquarters of the Nasimi district police in central Baku after he was arrested near the site of the rally.
He says he was first thrown into a room in the police headquarters.
"Then they came in and handcuffed me and took me to another floor of the building,” Yaqublu said. “They knocked me into a room and beat me for about an hour.”
Yaqublu said he has filed a formal complaint at the Prosecutor-General’s Office in Baku about the “brutal torture.” But he says he does not expect an impartial investigation or a fair decision from prosecutors about whether to go forward with the case.
“I also spoke about this brutal torture in the Nasimi district court. But Judge Babak Panakhov did not put this in the protocols or in the court records,” Yaqublu said.
“The government is supposed to protect human rights,” Yaqublu said. “They have committed crimes against me. Within the very institution that should protect my rights, I have been tortured. Those who committed this crime must be punished."
The Azerbaijani Interior Ministry has rejected the complaints about beatings and torture of protesters on October 19, saying that the allegations are not true.
However, the Council of Europe’s torture prevention body has concluded after multiple visits to Azerbaijan that "torture and other forms of physical ill-treatment by the police and other law enforcement agencies" is “systemic and endemic.”
“There is a serious problem of impunity (lack of effective investigations) and ineffective legal safeguards for detained persons,” the Council’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) concluded in 2018.
According to the committee’s report, the findings of CPT representatives who visited Azerbaijan in October 2017 “suggest the existence of a generalized culture of violence among the staff of various law enforcement agencies.”
It also says common torture methods used by police in Azerbaijan range from slaps, kicks, and truncheon blows to beatings on the soles of a suspended victim’s feet and the use of electric shocks.
Human Rights Watch says for detainees who complain about “serious ill treatment, the investigations almost never result in anyone being held to account.”
Human Rights Watch also says those who complain publicly about ill-treatment, torture, or police abuse in Azerbaijan risk retaliation from the authorities.