By Karl Rahder
|Police arresting an opposition protester on April 2, 2011
WASHINGTON DC. August 30, 2011: Azerbaijani courts have convicted and sentenced seven defendants in cases relating to protests in April of this year and the parliamentary elections last November.
Six defendants (Babek Hasanov, Zulfugar Eyvazov, Elshan Hasanov, Arif Alishli, Elnur Israfilov and Sahib Karimov) in Baku were convicted of charges of “organizing actions resulting in the violation of public order and resisting and using force against government officials.” Sentences ranged from one and half to three years, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Eight remaining defendants are still involved in court proceedings.
As reported on this blog earlier this year, protests held in March and April were inspired by the Arab Spring in the Middle East and were quickly suppressed by Azerbaijani police. The prison sentences, essentially for participation in small-scale political protests, underscore just how nervous the Azerbaijani government was in the wake of the Arab Spring and its continuing commitment to a “zero tolerance” policy toward dissent, as journalist Khadija Ismayilova put it in April.
Khalid Bagirov, lawyer for one of the eight remaining April 2 defendants as well as former parliamentary candidate Vidadi Iskenderov, was effectively disbarred (removed from Azerbaijan’s “Collegium”) for one year as of Friday.
Iskenderov’s case, not formally tied to the April 2 protesters, resulted in a guilty verdict and a three-year sentence handed down on Saturday in the city of Goychay. The prosecution had charged Isgandarov with, among other things, interfering with electoral officials and battery against an election observer during the parliamentary elections last November.
According to this article from Azerireport, Iskenderov “actively exposed election falsifications by investigating into the election process and election documents.”
His lawyer Bagirov told me yesterday via email that there were additional motives for the charges against his client: “I am deeply convinced that the true cause of the prosecution of Vidadi Iskenderov lies in his extensive human rights work. In particular, he has repeatedly put forward accusations of involvement of many high-ranking officials in corruption.”
The disbarment will complicate matters, says Bagirov: “Just before the verdict was read out, the Collegium suspended me for one year, thus my client’s interests in the higher courts, including the appellate and Supreme Court, will likely be undertaken by another lawyer.”
Bagiroz told me that the ostensible reason for his disbarment was due to a lawsuit brought by Baku police chief Rafig Abbasov in connection with a case involving a man who died earlier this year under mysterious circumstances after being arrested by a Baku police unit.
The underlying reason for his removal from the Collegium, Bagirov said, was his defense of Iskenderov and Elnur Majidli, who was arrested in connection with participation in the protests in April.
Another lawyer, Elchin Namazov, was removed by the judge in the Baku court for a charge similar to contempt in common law countries such as the US or Britain. Namazov had been representing Rufat Hajibeli and Fuad Garamanli for their roles in the April protests. According to Azadliq newspaper reporter Natiq Adilov, Namazov “was the most energetic of the lawyers.”
Osman Kazimov, one of Azerbaijan’s best known defense attorneys, was kicked out of the Collegium earlier this year, but was recently reinstated and is now representing one of the April 2 defendants, according to an Azeri source living in the US.
Both the EU and the OSCE have issued press statements expressing “concern” regarding the outcome of the trial of the April 2 defendants. The OSCE statement said that its Baku office “has monitored the court case and we have concerns about the fairness of the court proceedings.”
I am told by Azeri sources that two trials are ongoing in the remaining cases.
* Karl Rahder is the South Caucasus correspondent for ISN Security Watch. This article was first posted at the Foreign Policy Blogs.