Mamedov says those charges are politically motivated and Human Rights Watch considers them “dubious."
Azerbaijani and Russian human rights activists also believe Mamedov was targeted solely for his single-minded defense of the ethnic minority to which he belongs.
The Talysh are an Iranian people who live in the south-east of Azerbaijan, bordering on Iran.
The official results of the 2009 Azerbaijani national census give the number of Talysh as 112,000, or approximately 1.3 percent of the country’s total population, compared with 76,800 in 1999. But the Talysh themselves believe the true figure is far larger, up to 500,000, and that a further 600,000 Talysh live in Iran.
Mamedov’s engagement on behalf of his fellow Talysh dates back to the period of Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization in the mid- and late 1980s.
Mamedov left Baku for Moscow in the mid-1990s following the declaration in 1993 by a fellow Talysh, Colonel Alikram Gumbatov, of a short-lived independent Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic, returning only in 2005.
Two years later, Mamedov formed a committee to defend the rights of Novruzali Mamedov (to whom he was not related), a prominent Talysh scholar and editor of the newspaper “Tolyshi sado” (Voice of the Talysh) arrested and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment on what some have claimed were fabricated charges of spying for Iran. Novruzali Mamedov died in prison in August 2009.
Hilal Mamedov was detained on the street in Baku last June, charged with possession of drugs (believed by some to have been planted on him and in his apartment) and remanded in custody for three months.
Additional charges of treason and inciting national or religious enmity were brought against him two weeks later. On July 4, Azerbaijan’s Prosecutor General and Interior Ministry released a statement alleging that Mamedov had been recruited in 1992 by an Iranian intelligence service.
The Talysh community in Moscow staged several protests outside the Azerbaijani embassy against Hilal Mamedov’s arrest. The Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Mathematics of which Mamedov was a member has appealed on his behalf to the Azerbaijani government, while Russia’s chief mufti, Ravil Gainutdin, addressed a similar appeal to his Azerbaijani counterpart Sheikh-ul-Islam Allakh-Shukur Pasha-Zade.
Khalid Bagirov, one of Mamedov’s lawyers, said last month that the charge of treason was based on the testimony of a handful of people who said Mamedov had made “antistate remarks;” an interview Mamedov gave to an Iranian TV station; and testimony from Elman Guliyev, who was arrested and sentenced in 2007 together with Novruzali Mamedov.
The prosecution also sought to establish a link between Mamedov and Said Dadashbeyli, the leader of a group of 15 people convicted in December 2007 of plotting a coup with the backing of the Iranian intelligence services.
The charge of extremism was based on a letter Mamedov sent to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev asking for help in publishing his newspaper once a week.
Bagirov said large parts of the indictment are copied verbatim from those brought against Novruzali Mamedov and Gumbatov. He characterized the indictment against his client as “a literary and political document, devoid of any legal force."
In a statement to the media days before his trial began, Mamedov once again rejected the charges against him as fabricated and politically motivated.
He attributed his arrest to the popularity across Russia of a video clip posted in YouTube in May in which he sings a traditional Talysh melody in Russian.
But human rights activists Svetlana Gannushkina and Leyla Yunus both see Mamedov’s arrest and trial in the broader context of the Azerbaijani leadership’s deep mistrust of any individual courageous enough to speak out in defense of basic constitutional rights and freedoms, including those of ethnic minorities.