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Imprisoned Azerbaijani opposition leader on ‘hunger strike until death’

4 September 2020
Tofig Yagublu. Photo: Musavat.

A prominent member of the opposition Musavat Party, Tofig Yagublu, has said he will remain on hunger strike until his death unless the authorities release him from prison.

On Thursday, the Nizami District Court in Baku sentenced Yagublu to four years and three months in prison on charges of hooliganism. 

His daughter, Nigar Hazi, told OC Media that her father’s life was at risk.

‘My father has serious health problems. Most importantly, he suffers from asthma. We don’t know how long he will be able to endure this hunger strike. But if anything happens to my father, the government will be responsible for that,’ Hazi said. 

‘It’s already the third day of his hunger strike. I couldn’t tell him to stop […] It’s pointless to expect such a thing from a person who has dedicated his life to the struggle for prosperity and freedom in the country. My father has already made his decision — he says that they will either cancel the sentence and release him or kill him.’ 

Yagublu was detained on 22 March on charges of hooliganism. Several days before his arrest, President Ilham Aliyev announced that dissidents would be detained and, if necessary, isolated during the national quarantine.

His prosecution, especially coming as the country battles the coronavirus pandemic, has been widely condemned by rights groups.

Yagublu's lawyer, Elchin Sadigov, told OC Media that they had already appealed to the Court of Appeals.

‘The arrest of Tofig Yagublu is illegal. He must be released immediately’, Sadigov said.

Criticism of the First Lady

An online campaign has already been started on social media with people demanding Yagublu’s release. 

Afghan Mukhtarli, an Azerbaijani investigative journalist who spent over two years in prison after being abducted from Georgia, told OC Media he intended to go on hunger strike in support of Yagublu.

Afgan Mukhtarli was reunited with his family after being released in March. Photo: Leila Mustafayeva.

‘The arrest of Tofig Yagublu is illegal and he must be released immediately,’ Mukhtarli said.

Mukhtarli, who fled to Germany after being released in March, said he intended to organise a protest in Berlin ‘in front of German Chancellor [Angela] Merkel’s house’.

Yadigar Sadigli, another member of the Musavat party and former political prisoner, told OC Media that the only reason for Yagublu's arrest was his openly critical statements of president Ilham Aliyev online.

‘There is no surprise that he was arrested. The reason is that he mentioned Ilham Aliyev in his political interviews and articles, accusing him of being responsible for illegalities. 

Sadigli speculated that Yagublu’s criticism of Aliyev’s wife, Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva may have angered the authorities.

Ilham Aliyev and Mehriban Aliyeva. Official photo.

‘He was one of the few oppositionists who also mentioned Mehriban Aliyeva. It is very dangerous in this country to criticise the first lady, who they are trying to portray as being in the reformist wing.’ 

‘Outrageous politically motivated sentence’

Yagublu’s prosecution has received condemnation from abroad. 

Human Rights Watch said in a statement that his convictions showed ‘the extent Azerbaijani authorities are willing to go to subvert the rule of law to retaliate against government critics.’

Amnesty International condemned Yagublu’s ‘outrageous politically motivated sentence’ and declared him a prisoner of conscience.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s rapporteurs on Azerbaijan said they were concerned by ‘accusations that the trial was unfair, closed to the public, and that all the defence motions were rejected.’

In a statement following his arrest, Sir Roger Gale said he was ‘astonished and appalled by the Azerbaijani government’s shameful exploitation of the coronavirus pandemic to launch yet another crack-down on the country’s beleaguered political opposition.’ 

‘It beggars belief that any head of state would abuse a public health emergency in order to tighten his grip on power.’

The PACE rapporteur on political prisoners in Azerbaijan, Sunna Ævarsdottir said that: ‘everything I have heard so far suggests that the case against Mr Yagublu has been fabricated and he has once again been made a political prisoner. It looks very much as though the Azerbaijani government is launching yet another round of concerted political repression. This would not bode well for the country’s future standing in the Council of Europe.’

A spokesman for the US State Department told news agency Turan that the US was ‘troubled by the circumstances surrounding the arrest of and charges against opposition leader Tofig Yagublu’.

‘It would be shown on television’

Yagublu was convicted of attacking a married couple with a screwdriver following a car accident in Baku.

However, Yagublu’s version of events differed significantly. ‘My parked car was demonstratively hit [by another car] and then they [the people in the other car] attacked me’, he wrote on Facebook shortly before his arrest.

Yagublu’s daughter told journalists that the court did not review CCTV footage from the location of the altercation. 

‘If there was at least one video [of Yagublu doing something illegal] it would be shown on television,’ she said. 

‘The people who ordered and executed this impudent falsification against Yagublu will, sooner or later, answer before the law.’ 

This is not the first time that authorities Yagublu has been imprisoned on what rights groups have insisted were politically motivated charges. 

In January 2013 he was arrested for participating in a protest in the city of Ismayilli and sentenced to five years in prison on charges of organising a riot. He was released two years later by a presidential pardon.

He was also arrested in October 2019 after participating in an anti-government protest in Baku.

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