Human rights defenders visit Azerbaijan

In March 2013 as part of a delegation of human rights defenders from various countries I visited Azerbaijan to take part in a human rights mission organized by the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH).

FIDH is an international movement established in 1922, which now consists of 178 member organizations operating in more than a hundred countries. Federation bases its work on research, testimonies, public campaigns and legal work aimed at defending human rights.  For over 90 years FIDH struggles to defend basic human rights, victims of violence, it also strives to call for answer those guilty of violating human rights. One of the fields of FIDH activities is organizing missions in the countries where situation of human rights is alarming. The results of these missions are reports provided to international organizations and sent out to the government of the countries where missions were held. The work of human rights defenders is often connected to risks. One of the most dangerous missions was the one organized in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 during an inter-ethnic conflict in Osh, when more than a thousand people were killed in clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz and the losses from this conflict are still not estimated.

The aim of the mission in Azerbaijan, which I took part in, was the study of the situation with human rights’ violations in this country during a year of elections. In October 2013 presidential elections   were scheduled to take place and human rights defenders expected deterioration of situation with human rights.

To begin with I want to share my impressions of Azerbaijan and some tourist-like observations, which seem to characterize the political climate in the country as well. Our work supposed meeting different people and gathering their opinions, ranging from the members of youth organizations to high-rankling officials, and we spent all of our time in Baku, the country’s capital.

The first thing that struck us was the omnipresent eulogies of the former president of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev. I landed at Baku airport named after Heydar Aliyev, then – since there was no public transportation from the airport to the city – I was picked up by a friendly taxi driver, who drove me to Baku via the Heydar Aliyev avenue past the Heydar Aliyev Centre, a large building constructed in the shape of Aliyev’s autograph, which architects thought would look impressive when viewed from space. We passed the embankment, which local people call “the boulevard”, and came to the hotel, where rooms were reserved for the members of our mission. Throughout the whole of our ride from the airport I saw new blocks of flats, which struck me as being very pompous, but which were uninhabited, because the price per square meter in these houses seems to be too high to buy such a flat even if you have a mortgage loan. We were told later that construction of these blocks of flats was simply a way to launder money. Our hotel was a five minute walk from the city fortress encircling the historical centre of Baku – Icheri Shekher quarter, which in December 2000 was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The centre of the city strikes as being extremely clean and filled with very expensive boutiques, which were also empty. And that was not surprising, as the prices in these shops are about 20% higher than in Moscow. Thus, our first impression of Baku was that it is a very beautiful and clean city, but an empty one.

At the hotel there was a surprise awaiting us – a receptionist told us with a guilty smile that an unexpected situation occurred and our rooms that had been booked beforehand were already taken by somebody and we would be transferred to a different hotel nearby. I waited for a taxi and went to this other hotel. Somehow I was not surprised that it was located at the backyard of the Ministry of national security. I had to settle for this hotel, although it had neither a name, nor any tourists staying in it. The staff of the hotel even didn’t know its exact address. But in the end a taxi ordered by receptionist managed to bring my colleagues from the airport and we went out for a tour of the city, strolling through an empty “boulevard” and spending the free time we had before the beginning of our mission.

Our mission started its work on the day when oppositional organizations held their manifestation at the Fountain Square, protesting against deaths of soldiers during peace time. Thus, we found ourselves at the exact time and place we needed. Repressions against oppositionists began several days before the event. On March 8 three members of NIDA movement (one of them underage) were arrested on charges of possessing drugs and explosives. The next day all the TV channels aired their confessions of guilt, but neither the lawyers, nor family members were aware of their whereabouts. This situation was not resolved for the whole period of our stay in Baku. It was an easy guess that there were certain methods used to extract these “confessions”, as the detainees were ready to confess any possible deadly crimes. Later on three more activists were arrested, so repressions were gathering pace.

We witnessed the demonstration itself from afar, we happened to be about 200 meters from it, sitting in a street café not far from the Fountain Square. I could only see enormous police presence and some groups of protesters who stood behind the houses surrounding the square. But this was enough to see the determination of both the people and the police forces. Protesters were detained very harshly, police acted very aggressively. As it turned out later, this was the first demonstration in Baku, which was dispersed with the use of water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets and acoustic weapons. This was a warning on how similar events would be treated in future. About 60 people were detained and they were kept in police stations until the night. Afterwards they were taken outside the city: this is a regular practice of the police in Azerbaijan – protesters are usually driven out of the city in small groups and released there.

On the same evening we managed to meet the participants of the protest and get their testimonies. We received confirmation that police aggression was extra-legal and excessive, and also that special means were used to disperse the demonstration. Such a treatment of NIDA movement is explained not only by the fact that it had initiated these protests, but also by the fact that the head of the movement is the leader of oppositional “Musavat” party, which had been established in early XXth century and since the collapse of the USSR had been the main oppositional force in Azeri politics.

Unfortunately repressions against NIDA activists were just a single demonstration of exemplary pressure on political activists. Azeri authorities are not ashamed to use various means of pressure, including blackmail. Without going too much into details of the dirty methods of the security forces used against political opponents of the regime, I would like to speak about our visit to the family of a famous Talysh human rights activist and the author of the famous “Ok, good bye!” video Hilal Mammedov. We met the family of this man in the courthouse, where closed hearings in a case of “state treachery and espionage in favor of Armenia” were held. (It is noteworthy that the two countries are officially still at war with each other.) Hilal Mammedov, the author of the video and editor of “Talysh Sado” (“The Voice of Talysh”) newspaper, was arrested in June 2012 on charges of possessing drugs, espionage and state treachery. The family and friends of the arrested oppositionist explained his arrest by the fact that he had been active in defending the rights of Talysh people, a native people of Azerbaijan. The very video “Ok, good bye!” was recorded with the aim of popularizing Talysh folk art of “meykhana” – a sort of verbal competition in poetry read to the music. But this turned into a prison sentence for a Talysh human rights activist, whom we managed to visit while still in detention under investigation. We interviewed Mammedov’s lawyer and received an invitation to come to the house of this very intelligent family. We must say that many of the family members are well-known mathematicians and we spoke to them not only about this particular case of political repression, but also about their work in the field of mathematics.

Speaking of Baku detention prison for persons under investigation, I have to describe our visit there. During a meeting with the officials of the Ministry of justice we agreed to visit this prison. Earlier it was located at Bail prison, which was demolished in 2009. A new prison was commissioned then, which is located 10 km away from the city. We went there to monitor the conditions of the prison inmates, also we hoped to meet some of the political prisoners.

A whole spectacle was put on for us, demonstrating supposedly proper treatment of prisoners and wonderful conditions there. The head of the prison made a tour for us, showing us the library where one can even find oppositional publications of “Musavat” party dated six month before the day of our visit, a computer room, in which inmates learn how to use computers. Of course, none of the computer screens showed anything but the working tables and the faces of the people present there didn’t show that they are learning something new. After visiting the library and the computer room we went to the kitchen, the laundry room and the medical section. Sanitary conditions of the prison were much better than in most of detention centers we saw before, but this was hardly surprising – the buildings are only three years old. Nevertheless, we noticed practically glittering clean floors and walls, which no doubt were proof of a spectacle put on especially for us.

Especially funny was the demonstration of how food is prepared for prison inmates: I had an impression that the cooks took out half a year worth of food supplies to cook the meals, which the prisoners could only dream about when they were still free. But the thought that at least today the prisoners would have a proper meal was comforting.

In the medical section of the prison I had a clear feeling that all of this was poorly staged for us. I can’t swear with 100% certainty, but I had a strong impression that because of the lack of doctors some of the roles were filled by prisoners themselves. This could be seen from how they behaved – the real doctors acted naturally, but the “actors” in white suits instinctively stood up, put their hands behind their backs and lowered their eyes as soon as the head of prison entered the room.

We asked to meet political prisoners in order to talk to them about the prison conditions. We were taken to the main building, which was built in a five-pointed shape with the main controlling station in the middle of it. Unfortunately we were not able to meet all of the people we were interested to talk to – two of the three prisoners we asked to meet were at the court hearings, but we managed to talk to Hilal Mammedov. During the whole of our “tour” of prison I felt really hopeless and when entering the door of Mammedov’s cell this feeling became even stronger. But although I expected to see a disillusioned and tormented prisoner, my expectations were shattered. I encountered a lively and intelligent man whose eyes were filled with unbending firmness and determination. Unfortunately we had just a few minutes for our conversation and it was not surprising that we heard no complaints concerning the prison conditions. But what do you expect from a man who put a protective mask, plugged his ears with cotton and turned his face to the wall when in courtroom, thus showing that he refuses even to breath the same air with his prosecutors? Meeting with Mammedov made a big impression on me. I remembered his words very precisely. He said: “I don’t have problems with the prison guards. What’s their role? They only open and close the doors here, take me in or out. I do have problems with those who are above them. A lot depends on what you do.”

At the end of the visit we had a conversation with the head of the prison at his office. We constantly tried to understand which part of what we saw was a comedy and which not. And we received a very telltale answer to our question on whether the letters are being censored: “Of course not! No problem here! But if that’s about terror and stuff like that, this is a different thing!”

In the days that remained we had more encounters with different people, nice or otherwise. Soon we will publish our mission’s report as to what is happening in Azerbaijan during the presidential election year.

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