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‘Banned without explanation’: The special prohibitions faced by Azerbaijan’s ‘political prisoners’

11 December 2018
A poster saying ‘Freedom to political prisoners’ (Voice of America)

While Azerbaijan’s authorities deny that there are political prisoners in the country’s prisons at all — local and international rights groups disagree. Many former prisoners and their families complain that those locked up on political grounds face not only an unjust deprivation of their liberty, but special prohibitions such as on reading and speaking with their families.  

According to the Centre for the Protection of Political Prisoners, an Azerbaijani rights group, there are 150 political prisoners being held in Azerbaijan.

International human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House, frequently issue harsh statements against the Azerbaijani government over the arrest and detention of journalists, activists, and opposition politicians.

Despite this, the authorities deny the very existence of political prisoners in the country.

A prohibition on reading

Atlas Huseynova says that she constantly brings books to her son in prison, but not all of them are delivered to him.

Huseynova’s son, Ilkin Rustamzadeh, has already served more than six years in prison after protesting against deaths in the Azerbaijani army.

Rustamzadeh, a member of the pro-democracy NIDA youth movement, was arrested in 2013 and charged with ‘inciting violence and organising mass disorder’, charges Human Rights Watch called ‘bogus’.


‘Several times we tried to deliver some books [to Rustamzadeh]. Some of them were allowed and some were sent back. Last time they didn’t allow any of them. The books were not political, they were selections from world literature. But they banned them without any explanation’, Huseynova tells OC Media.

Tofig Yagublu an opposition politician from the Musavat Party, was detained on charges of organising riots in Ismayilli in 2013. He was released in a presidential amnesty in 2016.

According to Yagublu, all prisoners in Azerbaijan face restrictions, but control over political prisoners is much stricter.

‘For example, if political books are brought to a criminal or a drug dealer, no restrictions are applied. They only check the books for drugs inside. But when a political prisoner asks for a book, they immediately look at the content and at the name of a book’, Yagublu tells OC Media.

‘The true reason for such restrictions is imposing control. It is a special order by the authorities here.’

Yagublu says that artificial barriers are put in place aiming to keep the prisoners tense.

‘When I was in prison, they did not allow us to buy opposition newspapers. In Kurdakhani prison No 10, seven detainees united and demanded newspapers for a long time. After a while, our complaint was satisfied’, says Yagublu.

‘We were given only one hour for reading, but it was physically impossible to read two newspapers between seven people in an hour’, he says.

Azerbaijani lawyer Fariz Namazli says that there is an official list of books prohibited by law, but according to him, in many cases non-listed books are also banned, something he says is illegal.

Namzali told OC Media that in his own observations, this is usually applied to people detained for political reasons.

A communication ban

Investigative journalist Afgan Mukhtarli was kidnapped in Georgia in May 2017, before showing up a day later in Azerbaijani custody and sentenced to six years in prison accused of smuggling cash, illegal border crossing, and resisting police.

[Read on OC Media: The Afgan Mukhtarli case: an investigation stalled?]

Although by law Mukhtarli has the right to talk to his family every week, his wife, Leyla Mustafayeva, says that recently he has been able to make calls just once a month.

‘At first we could not speak with him for a month. Later, the calls were continuous and every week he called at approximately the same time. But in the last few months, I was able to speak to him only once’, Mustafayeva tells OC Media.

Mustafayeva says her husband is forbidden from reading books at all.

Natig Adilov, chief spokesperson for the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (APFP), says that three members of the party arrested in May — Babak Hasanov, Agil Ali Muharram, and Ruslan Nasirli — were not able to talk to their families by phone for four months.

‘Every prisoner has the right to talk to their families every four days. Lawyers are appealing, but they are deprived of these rights without any justification’, Adilov tells OC Media.

‘Even prisoners who have committed serious crimes have this opportunity, but not political prisoners. This biased attitude proves that these arrests are politically motivated’, he concludes.

‘Crushed and abandoned’

Ali Hasanov, assistant to the President on social and political affairs, told the media in February that the problems of political prisoners and political pressure were far worse in Western countries.

‘Azerbaijan is a democratic state, and according to the norms of the constitution, the independent activity of the legislative, executive, and judicial authorities is ensured in the country’, he said.

‘Therefore, we do not accept biased statements that diminish the image of the branches of government, certain state bodies on the basis of some “facts”​’.

According to Mehman Sadigov, the head of State Penitentiary Service, prison authorities do not deprive any prisoners of their legal rights, and only books  ‘promoting religious and racial extremism and immorality’ are prohibited.

‘All books brought to prisoners by relatives and friends are checked by overseers, and if these books are allowed by law, they are delivered to a prisoner, if not, they are returned’, Sadigov tells OC Media.

‘We do not differentiate political prisoners from other prisoners, moreover, there is no understanding of “political prisoners”. In general, they are all prisoners, and the law is equal for all of them’.

Sadigov said the Penitentiary Service encouraged prisoners to read and enhance their intellectual abilities. For this reason, according to him, prison libraries are constantly being enriched both at the expense of the state and with support from NGOs .

Journalist Rauf Mirgadirov, who spent several years in jail himself on espionage charges, agrees that there are well equipped libraries in Azerbaijani prisons.

‘There are very good libraries in prisons, there are even serious political books’, Mirgadirov tells OC Media.

‘The main purpose of the prohibition against reading for political prisoners or the ban on speaking with families is to shake them psychologically’.

Mirgadirov says that prisoners are unlikely to be able to join the political processes from prison, and the government likely knows this. Instead, he says the goal is to ‘create direct psychological tension. They want intellectuals to feel crushed, abandoned.’

‘Another reason is to create information shortages for political prisoners who are interested in reading’, Mirgadirov adds.

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