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Security at the Baku Court of Appeals used pepper spray to subdue those convicted following the July 2018 Ganja protests after it was announced that they would not be released. Relatives of those convicted and human rights activists have argued that their cases were completely fabricated and that the detainees should be freed.
In a closed session on 15 August, the Baku Court of Appeals reduced the prison sentences of the 11 men who were arrested during the 2018 protests.
After the court announced the decision, a commotion erupted among the defendants and their relatives — and Employees of the Penitentiary Service used pepper spray to subdue the defendants while their relatives were forced out of the courthouse.
Footage from outside the courtroom. (Nurlan Libre/Facebook)
Human rights activist Ogtay Gulaliyev, the coordinator of the Committee against Torture and Corruption, who defended the detained Ganja protesters, told OC Media that both human rights defenders and the relatives of the detainees expected the charges against the men to be dropped because their cases ‘were completely fabricated’.
The court was reviewing the cases of Maarif Hajıyev, Shahlar Rzayev, Kamal Maharramov, Orxan Yaghnaliyev, Ruslan Hasanov, Tural Bayramov, Nizami Akbarov, Toghrul Verdiyev, Seymur Aliyev, Araz Hasanov and Vaqif Ashrafov.
They were convicted by the Ganja Court on Grave Crimes on charges of organising and participating in a riot as well as resisting and assaulting police officers. The men were sentenced from six to nine years in prison. The ruling by the Baku Court of Appeal reduced their sentences by four to seven years each.
The men were arrested after on 3 July 2018, Ganja resident Yunis Safarov opened fire on then–Chief Executive of Ganja, Elmar Valiyev, wounding him and a bodyguard.
A week later, an anti-government protest was held in Ganja against Valiyev in which two police officers were fatally stabbed.
The government blamed the violence on Islamic extremists and said Safarov intended to kill Valiyev and other high-profile officials in order to destabilise the country and establish an Islamic state in Azerbaijan.
In the ensuing police operation, 80 people were detained and ten more were killed by police.
‘First time pepper spray was used in the courtroom’
Gulaliyev told OC Media that the use of pepper spray against the convicted men revealed the ‘inadequate attitude’ of penitentiary service employees who were in the court that day.
‘It is the first time in the court history of Azerbaijan that pepper spray was used on detainees who were behind iron bars’, he said. ‘Due to the use of pepper spray, both the prisoners and their parents felt sick. And rightly this has caused discontent among the parents’.
According to Gulaliyev, after the pepper spray was deployed the relatives were forced to leave the courthouse. The relatives, he said, proceeded to stage a protest outside the building, following which additional police forces were brought in to surround the courthouse.
Sevinj Huzeynzade, the mother of one of the detainees, said in an online interview with Azerbaijani journalist Sevinj Osmangizi, that she and the other parents were hoping that the court would release at least some of the detainees.
‘Our children almost broke the iron bars with their hands […] saying “let us out of here” […] and the parents, unable to restrain their indignation and emotions […] broke tables and chairs, slammed doors, tore curtains, and were on the verge of suicide’, she said.
‘After the pepper spray was used, the parents felt even worse, saying “Why do you pepper spray our children?”. At the same time, when they used it […] they sprayed it directly in the face of their children’, she said.
According to Gulaliyev, after the confrontation with the police near the court, the detainee’s relatives went to the detention centre where they were being held and demanded to see their sons, but they were rebuffed.
Hearings of other cases tied to the Ganja protests were also held at the Sabunchu District Court of Baku.
During the hearings on Thursday, the cases of Oqtay Huseynzade and seven others were reviewed. The judge requested sentences that ranged from four years to life imprisonment for the accused.
‘It is a very absurd punishment.’ Gulaliyev said. ‘Life imprisonment […] is an impossible punishment, because the investigation we conducted, the facts and evidence we obtained, and the videos we showed in the courtroom clearly demonstrated that at the rally on 10 July 2018 in front of the Ganja Executive Power Building all of these people did not commit any illegal actions and did not use violence, as it is said in the indictment’.
‘The hidden truth’
Gulaliyev said that he and other members of the Committee against Torture and Corruption had gone through a large volume of evidence in these cases, including video footage from private security cameras and public CCTV cameras that recorded the Ganja protests.
‘This footage once again makes it clear that, as opposed to what was said in the indictment, on that day, except for one person, Rashad Beyukkishiyev — the main organiser and executor of the incident — no one else used physical violence against the police, used weapons against them, or threw stones at them’, Gulaliyev said.
Though, he added, there were also veiled women who ‘are still unknown’ that ‘threw dishes at the police’.
Gulaliyev said that that the fact that footage of the protests had been kept hidden from the public by the authorities should be questioned.
‘I think that the lack of public disclosure of the video footage related to the Ganja events is done to prevent the disclosure of the true picture of the situation’, he said. He said the dissemination of the truth would ‘not beneficial to either the government or the investigating authorities’.