Administrative detention is on the rise in Azerbaijan and it has targeted scores of people who vocally oppose the government. Over the last three years a total of 55 representatives of opposition parties from the National Front Party of Azerbaijan (NFPA), the Musavat Party, and the youth movement NIDA, have been detained on administrative charges. The aim seems that of creating a climate of fear and limit activists’ action in the public space.
In most cases, activists are arrested under article 310.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses which outlines “for deliberately resisting to obey lawful demands of on-duty police officers,” and are accused of “loud swearing in streets and conflicts with people.” Often targeted individuals, being human rights’ activists, journalists, or members of the opposition parties, are followed by people in civilian clothes - they belong to the so-called underground police. The arrested report of threats by the law enforcement officers to sign statements that are prepared by the police, or release appropriate testimonies, otherwise they will be subjected to more serious charges, mainly drug-related indictments.
Samed Rahimli, a human rights expert lawyer from Baku, maintains that the detention, which amounts to a few days in jail, has become a regular tool to silence civil and political activists.
International human rights’ organizations, like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have periodically documented the arrests and in May 2016 the Council of Europe released a report about misuse of administrative arrests in member countries. Azerbaijan is mentioned as a country that uses administrative arrests against public and political activists.
Turan Ibrahimli, 24, is a member of the oppositional political party NFPA. An off-site student of the Azerbaijan Cooperation University, Turan was arrested on January 13, 2016. A few months later, on March 15, his father, Mammed Ibrahim, himself a member of the NFPA, was sentenced to three years in jail on hooliganism.
Since his father’s arrest, Ibrahimli has been in charge of the family and financial constraints have impeded finishing his university studies.
The first devaluation of the Azerbaijani currency, the manat, in February 2015, sparked protests across the country as prices skyrocketed and Turan claims his arrest is a punishment for his criticism on social media.
“In mid-January, my brother was taken into custody instead of me by mistake. He was then released and called me to say that a police officer wanted to see me. When I went home, there were about six to eight men waiting for me. They took me to the police station where I was appointed a lawyer of their choice. I requested my own lawyer, but they didn’t satisfy my demand.”
Members of the NFPA claim that the police pressured Ibrahimli to sign a declaration admitting disturbances in the street, otherwise they would proceed with a criminal case on drug-related charges. He had no choice but to put ink on the paper. The day after he was sent to court.
“During the trial, two policemen testified that I swore on the street, and I was sentenced to seven days behind bars. Apart from cutting my hair, as regulations require, I was not under pressure while in jail.”
Ibrahimli’s friends managed to deactivate his Facebook profile which made his comments untraceable.
“But the prison’s director did advise me not to post any more critical comments about the government. I was warned that otherwise I could be arrested for a long time.”
That’s just not an option for Ibrahimli - he continues his socio-political activity in contrast with the government and he advocates for freedom of expression.
The pro-democracy youth movement NIDA was established in 2011 with the mission of calling for civil and social changes in the country. With no political affiliation, its activists has been able to mobilize young people through social media and street demonstrations, but are facing increased pressures and intimidations.
Ulvi Hasanli knows that well. A NIDA’s board member, the 29-year-old has been detained on administrative charges three times. Originally from Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second largest city, Hasanli moved to Baku in 2005 to study at the State Oil Academy, but his political career took over. After joining DALGA, a pro-democracy youth movement established in February 2005, he was expelled from the academy and later entered into Azerbaijan Tourism University.
His first arrest dates back to March 11, 2011 in the aftermath of the “Great People’s Day” protests. The Facebook event was organized by an independent Azerbaijani journalist who lives in France and called for anti-government protest. The protest was unsanctioned and the protesters shoot loudly the slogans like “Freedom” on the streets. Hasanli was detained by police and taken to the police department. According to the police, Hasanli failed in obeying the ban on the protest and was sentenced to seven days in jail.
Hasanli spent additional seven days behind bars a year later, when on October 20, 2012 he was part of a demonstration calling for the Parliament to dissolve. The reason for the demonstration became a hidden cam video that was posted online showing how a member of Parliament, Gular Ahmadova, demanding a million dollar bribe to get someone elected in parliament. He claims that he and others were tortured by police officers and that 68 activists were cramped into a small cell.
“We did not receive water or food, there was just a place for biological needs,” he told Chai Khana. “We were jammed into a narrow and stuffy room for five hours. It took loud noises to get the police to open the door to listen to our requests.”
One year later, in a different scenario, it was the same story. İn July,14 2013 members of NİDA were blocked while while sticking protest stickers in different parts of Baku and arrested.
“I walked into the metro and I noticed that some police officers pointed me to a man in civilian clothes. Then two hours later I was arrested and taken to the police station. That same man was there. He was angry at me, showed me a photograph of my friend and asked where he could find him. “If you want to find them then go and look for them by yourself,” I responded. It didn’t take long after they were caught too.”
The arrests did not stop Ulvi’s activities. Hasanli is still a board member of NIDA youth movement.
Political activism at times seems to be genetic, transmitted from parents onto the following generation. Amid Suleymanovinherited his father’s militancy. And in May 2016 ended up in jail for disobeying the police demands.
Suleymanov’s father, Yusif, has played in the Musavat’s ranks for many years until 2014 when he resigned in protest to the party’s leader appointment. Amid soon follow his father’s decision and joined NIDA.
According to Yusif Suleymanov, on the night of May 24, 2016 men in civilian clothes tried to enter the family’s apartment but he didn’t let them. The “uninvited guests” knocked on the door again the next day. This time there was a police officer with them. Amid claims he was treated like a dangerous criminal, handcuffed while all his electronic devices were confiscated.
“The police compiled a statement saying that I was swearing in the entrance of the home, that officers warned me not to disrupt people in the public space, but I did not obey. So I was taken to the police station. After they made me sign that document, the court sent me to ten days of administrative arrest.”
He was detained in the same room with photoreporter Elnur Muxtar. A few days in the detention, they were interrogated separately.
“They questioned me about NIDA, they wanted details about the chairman, activists, board members, but I told them just information that they already knew. Our organization Nida is not a secret, anyway,” Suleymanov told Chai Khana. “At the beginning we were ridiculed, but somehow officers started to communicate with us, showing some kind of respect. I still not sure why I was arrested, I didn’t participate in any meetings or protests that time. Either I was confused with someone else, or got an order from the government.”
Human rights’ groups, both at home and abroad, have denounced the government’s practise and calls to limit what is widely seen as an abuse have gained traction on social network - on Facebook the page “Support Azerbaijan activists in administrative detention” has over 1,000 supporters.
In May 2016 the Council of Europe, the Strasbourg-based organization focusing on human rights, democracy and rule of law in Europe, issued a report about the administrative detention in member states.
The report notes that as in May 2013, “Azerbaijan adopted new legislative provisions extending the maximum length of administrative detention – without any court decision – for a wide range of offences. For example, organising an unauthorised demonstration now gives rise to sixty days detention, and the refusal to obey a police officer can be punished by up to thirty days’ detention (in both cases, the limit was fifteen days before).”
Azerbaijan joined the organization in 2001. Yet, the South Caucasus republic remains, according to the report, among the countries where cases of administrative detention are “used in order to imprison political opponents, demonstrators and activists during periods of political tension, particularly in pre- or post-electoral contexts, are far from isolated.”