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Azerbaijani rights lawyer vows to fight on despite disbarment proceedings

9 February 2021
Shahla Humbatova. Photo: US State Department.

Prominent Azerbaijani human rights lawyer Shahla Humbatova has vowed to fight disbarment procedures against her despite what she says is a campaign of ‘harassment and threats’ from the Bar Association.

The Azerbaijani Bar Association has accused Humbatova of submitting a fake document as evidence during a civil case she was litigating, a criminal offence. They have also accused her of owing ₼460 ($270) in membership fees. 

The association has taken her to court in an attempt to disbar her, which would strip her of the right to practice law.

Humbatova is well known in Azerbaijan for taking on high-profile human rights cases, including those of queer Azerbaijanis as well as blogger Mehman Huseynov. The move to disbar her follows the disbarment of dozens of other human rights lawyers in recent years, leaving few remaining lawyers taking on such cases. 

Speaking with OC Media, Humbatova insisted the accusations were politically motivated.

She said the allegation she submitted fake documents was baseless, and that her defence had submitted evidence proving this.

She also said that Anar Baghirov, Chair of the Presidium of the Bar Association, had already requested that the Prosecutor’s office investigate this. Earlier this year the Anti Corruption Department found no evidence of a crime in her actions. 

She confirmed that she had owed eight months of membership fees, but insisted the association did not make any effort to notify her of this.

‘I learned about this from the media the day after the Board’s decision [to take me to court]’, she said. 

Humbatova stated that she immediately made the payment, so when the Bar went to court with her disbarment request, there was no longer any debt. 

Emin Abbasov, a legal practitioner who also works on human rights cases, criticised the proceedings against Humbatova for being conducted behind closed doors and without any records. 

Abbasov, along with four others, is himself appealing to the European Court of Human Rights after being denied certification by the Bar Association.                                                                                                                     

Abbasov, who was in court at a hearing for Humbatova on 2 February, told OC Media that the court even attempted to block representatives from the US Embassy and EU Delegation from attending the court, though they were eventually allowed in.

A spokesperson for the US Embassy in Baku confirmed to OC Media that a representative had attended Humbatova’s hearing. 

‘As a defence lawyer, Shahla Humbatova has bravely defended human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers, youth activists and others in Azerbaijan’, the embassy stated. 

According to the spokesperson, Humbatova was one of 12 recipients globally of the US State Department’s 2020 International Women of Courage award for her ‘outstanding work and her courage in the face of harassment and threats’. 

Humbatova being presented the 2020 International Women of Courage Award by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and First Lady Melania Trump.

Humbatova told OC Media she was certain the court would uphold the Bar Associations’ complaint, citing similar verdicts against other human rights lawyers. ‘Orders are always executed accurately’, she said, suggesting her disbarment had been ordered from above.

Anar Baghirov, the chair of the Presidium of the Bar Association, told OC Media it would not be appropriate to comment while the case was ongoing.

Disbarment hearings are scheduled to continue on 5 March.

‘Systemic and targeted pressure’

Humbatova told OC Media that the move to disbar her was a continuation of the policy of dismantling human rights defenders in the country. 

‘It is lawyers and human rights activists who are fighting against politically motivated arrests, torture, repression of dissidents and those who simply demand their rights, and informing the public and international organisations. Therefore, they are being neutralised’, she stated.

In December 2019, 42 member organisations of the Human Rights House, a global rights group, called on the Azerbaijani Bar Association to ‘halt reprisals against a number of human rights lawyers, including Shahla Humbatova and Elchin Sadigov’. Sadigov is Humbatova’s current lawyer. 

Zibeyda Sadigova is one of the last remaining lawyers working on political human rights cases in Azerbaijan and submitting them to the European Human Rights Court. 

Sadigova told OC Media that disbarment proceedings against Humbatova were part of ‘systemic and targeted pressure’ against lawyers who were working on human rights cases.

Sadigova said she knew many lawyers who had not paid membership fees and yet remained in the association.

‘Disbarment means loss of any kind of income by disabling a lawyer from their practice. It is also the severest of punishments and they are applying it despite her never having been reprimanded nor subjected to any disciplinary sanction before’, said Sadigova.

She said she had faced such pressure while defending one of those prosecuted in the Ganja case, in which two senior police officers were killed in Azerbaijan’s second city of Ganja during an anti-government protest.

Sadigova said that beyond pressure on existing human rights lawyers, there was a clear pattern of the Bar Association giving young lawyers applying to the bar who had shown an interest in human rights cases failing grades in their oral examinations.

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