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Several dozen people gathered in front of the Executive Power building in Azerbaijan’s second city, Ganja, on 22 April to protest prosecutions over the city’s deadly July 2018 unrest.
The protesters, family members of the detained, said the arrests of their relatives were unfair and called on the authorities to release them.
On 3 July 2018, local resident Yunis Safarov opened fire on then–Chief Executive of Ganja, Elmar Veliyev, wounding him and a bodyguard.
A week later, an anti-government protest was held in Ganja against Veliyev, in which two police officers were fatally stabbed.
The government blamed the violence on Islamic extremism 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, 60 people were detained and eight more killed by police.
Sevda Mehdiyeva, a resident of Kariyeri, a village in the Samukh District of Azerbaijan, participated in last week’s protest. She told OC Media that her 30-year-old son, Aydin Rustamov, was unfairly sentenced to eight years in prison.
According to Mehdiyeva, despite the police not finding any evidence of her son’s involvement in the 2018 protest in his phone or in camera footage from the scene, the court still convicted him.
‘My son came home on 8 July to see his third newborn child. He took his children and the children of his friend for a walk in the park. They only observed what was happening. The camera footage also shows him observing with small children. But they still tortured him for two months with electricity, and injured his head’, Mehdiyeva said.
Anar Bagirov was killed by the State Security Service in the aftermath of the 2018 protest, allegedly after resisting arrest.
His sister, Aynura Bagirova, told OC Media that the authorities claimed he was connected with the shooter, Yunis Safarov. ‘My brother didn’t have any special proximity or friendship with him’ she said.
Bagirova said that on the day Veliyev was shot, her brother was in Baku, not Ganja.
‘Now we ask for a copy of the death certificate, but they don’t give it to us, saying that we can complain to whomever we want. We appealed to the higher authorities, but they all replied that he was killed because he resisted the State Security Service’.
According to Bagirova, her brother was buried late at night by State Security Service officers without informing his family. Because of this, she said the family has doubts over whether he is actually dead or not.
Many of the family members claim that those arrested only observed the protest, but did not participate.
Sevinj Huseynzade, the mother of Elmir Huseynzade, said her son was convicted under seven articles of the Azerbaijani criminal code.
Huseynzade told OC Media that many people observing the 10 July protest were accused by the authorities of assisting the killers of the two police officers during the protest.
Huseynzade called the accusations ‘fake and fabricated’.
‘They make our children the victims of these political games. If they are right, why then haven’t they been introducing the investigation materials to our lawyers for months? My son doesn't even do namaz, and has no connection to religious people’, Huseynzade said.
According to Oktay Gulaliyev, the head of the Centre for the Protection of Political Prisoners, the centre’s lawyers have been taking part in court hearings on the cases.
‘During the first stages of our monitoring, we saw that the State Security service subjected the arrested people to severe torture’, Gulaliyev told OC Media.
He said that those arrested had been charged with ‘extreme accusations’, and that most of the charges were fabricated.
‘There are several people who were not in Ganja that day that are being charged with such extreme articles like murder, organising terrorist groups, and attempting a coup d'état’, Gulaliyev said.
According to Gulaliyev, the government was using the events in Ganja to pursue critics. ‘As we see, the government has used these events beforehand to neutralise several people with radical agendas. At the same time, they take revenge on peoples’ support of the shooting of Elmar Valiyev on 3 July’, he said.
Gulaliyev also said that the court proceedings had violated the law by refusing to accept motions by defence lawyers and for failing to present factual evidence.
‘The expressions of the victims and the witnesses are contradictory. The majority of the witnesses are policemen’, he said.
‘The court doesn’t accept the camera footage from the scene. There is no objective court investigation being held. The punishments given are the harshest. It proves that the Ganja case is fake and fabricated. The majority of arrests during the Ganja events were politically motivated and [those arrested] have the status of political prisoners.’
Gulaliyev said the centre would take this into consideration while planning their next moves.
While the cases connected with the Ganja unrest were opened by the Ganja City Prosecutor’s Office, the hearings have been taking place in the Sabunchi Court of Serious Crimes in Baku.
The Ganja Prosecutor’s Office told OC Media that they were unable to reply to any questions before the investigation was over.
Azerbaijani Chief Prosecutor Zakir Qaralov told media on 27 September that 77 criminal cases had been filed in connection with the Ganja unrest.
Fourteen people have already been sentenced, and the cases of 17 people, including Yunis Safarov, are still being investigated. Their hearings will begin in August.