A prominent member of Azerbaijan’s opposition Popular Front has been on hunger strike for nearly a week demanding that the authorities release him.
Saleh Rustamli, a veteran of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, was sentenced to seven years in prison in February 2019 on money laundering charges.
Rustamli served as the head of the Gadabay region under the presidency of Abulfaz Elchibey. Since 1998, he has been living in Russia. He was arrested in the city of Shamkir while visiting Azerbaijan in May 2018.
Saleh Rustamli was transferred to a prison hospital shortly after beginning his hunger strike.
However, Mehman Sadigov, the chief spokesperson for the Penitentiary Service, told OC Media that his hunger strike had not been recognised.
‘When a prisoner goes on a hunger strike, he must first apply to the prison administration in writing. Not orally. Based on the appeal, the prison administration implements other rules provided by law. However, there is no official appeal regarding [Saleh Rustamli]’, he said.
Rustamli’s lawyer, Bahruz Bayramov, said that his client had appealed to the prison administration two days before the start of the hunger strike.
‘He is very stronger psychologically, he said he will continue the hunger strike until the end’, Bayramov told OC Media ‘He has been preparing for this psychologically and physically for a long time. There is no difference between being imprisoned on illegal charges and dying.’
Rustamli’s son, Sezgin Rustamov, also told OC Media that his father was determined to continue his hunger strike.
‘My father said he would never stop the hunger strike and insisted on his decision. He said he would give up water in 10 days. He said that one way or another, he would be released: either dead or alive’, Sezgin said.
Drug charges to money laundering
Saleh Rustamli was originally arrested in May 2018 on drug charges. His nephew, Vidadi Rustamli, was arrested shortly thereafter on the same charges.
Saleh Rustamli said at the time that he had been tortured for 20 days at the Main Department for Combating Organised Crime.
Later in May, other members of the Popular Front Party, Babek Hasanov, Agil Maharramli, and Ruslan Nasirli were also detained. In a joint statement by the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Interior Ministry, all five were accused of money laundering, and the drug charges were dropped.
According to the claim, Saleh Rustamli illegally transferred $420,000 to the Popular Front Party.
Saleh Rustamli said he had been a member of the Popular Front for many years, and that he and other Azerbaijanis frequently sent money from their earnings to help the families of political prisoners. He added that he had only sent around $10,000 since going to Russia.
In February 2019, the Baku Court of Grave Crimes sentenced Rustamli to 7 years and 3 months, Maharramov to 4 years, and Hasanov to 3 years in prison. Vidadi Rustamli and Ruslan Nasirov were given suspended sentences.
Babak Hasanov was pardoned on 18 March 2021.