An Azerbaijani court has overturned the prison sentence of Ilgar Mammadov, chair of the opposition Republican Alternative Movement (REAL). On Monday, Shaki Court of Appeals replaced his two remaining years in prison with a suspended prison term and a ban on leaving the country. Mammadov had already served 5 years in prison.
According to RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service Radio Azadliq, Mammadov's defence still plans to appeal the latest Court decision as he was not acquitted of the crimes he was convicted of.
Mammadov was arrested in February 2013 accused of ‘organising riots’ and ‘using violence against police officers’ during January’s anti-government protests in the north-western city of Ismailli.
The arrest came shortly after Mammadov announced he would run for president in October 2013 elections. He was sentenced to seven years in prison. Mammadov, 48, a graduate of the Central European University, started the REAL Movement in 2009 after working as a political analyst, reporter, and running a popular political blog.
Mammadov was arrested together with Tofig Yagublu, the Deputy Chair of the opposition Musavat Party, who was pardoned by President Aliyev in March 2016.
In 2015, Mammadov claimed to have been beaten by prison staff and attacked by his cellmate in separate cases.
In a 4 July resolution, the European Parliament said Mammadov’s imprisonment was among the ‘most emblematic cases’ of restrictions on political freedoms in Azerbaijan.
‘Innocent people should not be deprived of their liberty’
Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, welcomed Mammadov’s release, tweeting on Monday that ‘Ilgar Mammadov has finally been released today after more than five years in prison in Azerbaijan. We cannot accept political prisoners in Europe, innocent people should not be deprived of their liberty and the judgments of the ECHR must be executed’
Good news that Ilgar Mammadov has finally been released today after more than five years in prison in Azerbaijan. We cannot accept political prisoners in Europe, innocent people should not be deprived of their liberty and the judgments of the ECHR must be executed.
— Thorbjørn Jagland (@TJagland) August 13, 2018
In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that his detention was unlawful and that the actual purpose of his arrest was to silence or punish him for openly criticising the government. A second ruling in November 2017 upheld the decision.
Although the court ruled that Azerbaijan had violated the European Convention on Human Rights concerning the right to liberty and security and the right to a fair trial, Azerbaijan persistently refused to implement the judgement and release Mammadov.
In response, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe initiated proceedings against Azerbaijan in 2017 for violating the convention, hinting that it could face expulsion from the council for its failure to abide by the ECHR’s decision. Azerbaijan ratified the Convention on Human Rights in 2002, and as a member of the Council of Europe is obliged to implement the court’s decisions.
Giorgi Gogia, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said Mammadov’s release was ‘a partial implementation at best’ of the ECHR judgement. Speaking to OC Media, Gogia said ‘he is out and that is important, but not enough’. ‘It’s a conditional release and there are limits on his freedoms. […] Azerbaijani authorities should fully vacate his conviction and secure his freedom of movement and not interfere in his political or civic activism.’
In December, Novruz Mammadov, Foreign Policy Advisor to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, accused the Council of Europe of Islamophobia for their criticism of Azerbaijan’s human rights record and for their threat to expel the country. Mammadov said Azerbaijan’s withdrawal from the organisation would ‘not be a tragedy’, suggesting that Baku might preemptively withdraw.
In its 2018 report, Human Rights Watch said that during a continuing crackdown on independent voices, Azerbaijani authorities convicted at least 25 journalists and political activists last year, while dozens more were detained or are under criminal investigation, face harassment and travel bans, or have fled.
Freedom House’s Nation in Transit 2018 report named Azerbaijan as one of ‘Eurasia’s entrenched autocracies — [where] personalised regimes keep a tight grip on power, suppressing political competition and targeting independent activists and journalists who dare to speak out’.
As of January 2018, there were 161 political prisoners in Azerbaijan, according to the Center for the Protection of Political Prisoners.
This article was amended on 13 August 2018.