A number of human rights and opposition activists in Azerbaijan have reacted with scepticism to the acquittals of ReAl party leader Ilgar Mammadov and prominent party member Rasul Jafarov.
The Supreme Court of Azerbaijan overturned the convictions of the two men on 23 April. The court also awarded Mammadov ₼234,000 ($138,000) in compensation for moral damages; Jafarov received ₼57,400 ($34,000).
Suspicions about the ReAl Party from other opposition parties and local rights activists have grown since the party won their first seat in February’s parliamentary election. International observers from the OSCE observed ‘numerous serious irregularities’ during the election, which they said lacked the ‘pre-requisites for genuine democratic elections’.
Jafarov was convicted in 2014 for malpractice, forgery and misappropriation, and tax evasion. He was pardoned two years later but his conviction also remained in place. despite a judgement by the European Court of Human Rights.
Both men were recognised by a number of international human rights groups as political prisoners. The European Court of Human Rights issued several judgements in favour of both men, finding their arrest and imprisonment unreasonable.
[Read more on OC Media: Council of Europe urges Azerbaijan to clear criminal records of activists and opposition figures]
‘Today has been a great day in my life. I was acquitted by the Supreme Court. I was declared innocent. All my rights have been officially restored’, Mammadov wrote on Facebook after the decision was announced.
Jafarov, a veteran human rights activist, told Meydan TV on Thursday that their acquittals were ‘somewhat expected’ but denied that the judgements were political.
He later told Turan that ‘it is possible that my political activity will prevail over human rights defence’.
On 24 April, the Delegation of the European Union to Azerbaijan welcomed the acquittals but added that they expect ‘Azerbaijan to live up to its international commitments and to continue to implement the remaining decisions of the European Court of Human Rights’.
On the background of dialogue
In a statement on Thursday, The ReAl party called the acquittals a ‘historic event’ for Azerbaijan’s judiciary. They said it showed that ‘in a broad sense, Azerbaijan’s national legislation is ultimately effective in protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms’.
The party noted that the acquittals took place on the background of dialogue between ReAl and the government.
‘We, the ReAl party, do not overlook the fact that today’s acquittals happened on the background of the government’s initiative to engage in dialogue with the opposition — an initiative which we, as the ReAl party, accepted and which has evolved into a practical process after the establishment of first contact’, the statement said.
The acquittals were perceived sceptically by many opposition activists online, with some youth activists reporting that both Mammadov and Jafarov had blocked or unfriended them on social media.
This included Ilkin Rustamzade, a prominent member of pro-democracy youth group NIDA. Rustamzade himself spent almost six years behind bars on charges of ‘inciting violence and organising mass disorder’.
‘Ilgar Mammadov and Rasul Jafarov have been acquitted. One of them unfriended me, the other blocked me. I am happy and proud’, he said.
Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayil, who has also spent time in prison, wrote on Facebook on Thursday that she wished the acquittals had happened without the events of February’s election having taken place.
‘It was their right to be acquitted but this gives the impression that it was bribed’.
Political expert and law professor Farhad Mehdiyev told OC Media that despite constant pressure from the Council of Europe, the acquittals may not have been possible if it were not for the dialogue which took place between the government and the ReAl Party.
‘I do not believe that real dialogue is underway to introduce democratic reforms’, Mehdiyev said. ‘The acquittals of two opposition members does not show this. We still have many decisions of the European Court which have not been implemented yet’.
Mehdiyev said that dialogue was necessary in order for certain reforms to be carried out but he did not believe the government had any intention of doing so.
‘If they intended to do so, they would have done this before the parliamentary elections [which were carried out] with numerous violations, and not now’, he said.
Mehdiyev noted that the government needs the visibility of the dialogue to show the international community that Azerbaijan has democratic processes going.
Leyla Aliyeva, a visiting scholar at the Russian and East European Studies Centre at Oxford University, told OC Media that Mammadov and Jafarov’s acquittals became particularly relevant now as Azerbaijan is preparing to finish negotiations on an Association Agreement with the European Union.
‘Oil countries have such a notion as “pacted democracy”, when democratic institutions which should be appointed through elections are replaced by agreements between the government and opposition. Looking at everything, this is happening right now in Azerbaijan’, she said.
She added that if the ReAl party no longer consistently criticised the government it would be obvious that they had become a pro-government opposition party.
‘Traitors and corrupt representatives of a fifth column’
Parliamentary elections on 9 February saw Erkin Gadirli, a prominent member of the ReAl party, winning a single seat for the party, the first in their history.
Several weeks later, the leaders of a number of opposition parties received an invitation from the government to visit the President’s Administration for ‘dialogue’.
The opposition Musavat and Popular Front parties called the invitation ‘an imitation of dialogue’ and refused to participate, proposing their own conditions for the dialogue.
ReAl party leader Ilgar Mammadov accepted the invitation on 29 February, on the morning of planned protests against the election results organised by the party. Mammadov later made a statement about the ‘importance of [such] dialogue’.
In a speech delivered on 19 March, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev called any opposition group that did not enter ‘into dialogue’ with the authorities, ‘traitors and corrupt representatives of a fifth column’. He said that the government may need to ‘clean’ them out.
More than 20 opposition activists have since been arrested.
[Read more on OC Media: Azerbaijan opposition party claims nearly a dozen members arrested in last two weeks]