One hundred years ago this month in what is now Tbilisi, Georgia, the Azerbaijani National Assembly declared the first Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. The newly independent nation was only the third democratic republic in the Turkic and Muslim world and one of the first to give women the right to vote. Two years later, it would be absolved into the Soviet Union.
Azerbaijan celebrates the centennial of its progressive, democratic legacy at a time when the government has rejected democratic principles and engaged in a sustained crackdown on human rights. Last month, President Ilham Aliyev cruised to re-election for a fourth-term in a vote which international observers criticized for taking place “within a restrictive political environment and under laws that curtail fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections.”
Meanwhile, according to local activists, there are more than 140 prisoners of conscience in the country, many of whom are imprisoned for their outspoken criticism of President Aliyev and his regime.
One such prisoner is Afgan Mukhtarli, arrested nearly one year ago in the same city where the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was born.
Afgan is a journalist who fled to neighboring Georgia in 2015 with his wife to avoid harassment and possible imprisonment. For two years, Afgan worked as a freelance journalist, exposing corrupt practices of President Aliyev and his family. Before his arrest, Afgan was writing an article that described how President Aliyev’s children were profiting from their financial holdings while other Azerbaijani financial institutions were suffering. Recent reporting by outlets such as The Guardian has brought more light to these allegations.
On May 29, 2017, Afgan was walking home in Tbilisi, mere blocks from his apartment when a minivan pulled up and he was pushed into the vehicle by unidentified men. Afgan identified the car as being a Georgian criminal police vehicle, and has stated that the men were dressed in Georgian criminal police uniform. The men drove down a nearby street, stopped the car and proceeded to handcuff Afgan and beat him.
In the border town of Lagodekhi, Afgan was handed over to two men who were speaking Azerbaijani. Shortly after crossing the border into Azerbaijan, Afgan was escorted into a building where one of the men who was in the car announced that Afgan has been caught illegally crossing the border into Azerbaijan. He also stated that Afgan resisted being taken into custody, and that 10,000 Euros was found on his person. He was kept in the building for several hours before he was transported to downtown Baku where he was officially charged with illegal border crossing, use of force against a border agent, and smuggling. After an extended pre-detention, Afgan was sentenced to six years in prison in January 2018. Bowing to domestic and international pressure, the Georgian government initiated an internal investigation into the circumstances of Afgan’s forced removal to Azerbaijan, however the investigation remains stalled. The extent of Georgia’s involvement in the kidnapping remains unknown.
The brazen abduction of Afgan is only one example of Azerbaijan’s consistent disregard of international norms. Despite a desire to be welcomed into the European community, Azerbaijan has long refused to uphold the rule of law and protect the basic rights of its citizens. This refusal now places Azerbaijan at odds with the Council of Europe.
The flashpoint for this potential schism is the arrest and imprisonment of Ilgar Mammadov, leader of the Republican Alternative opposition party. Ilgar was arrested in February 2013 after he wrote a blog post that contradicted the government’s official account of a public protest. He was charged with organizing or participating in a breach of public order, resisting arrest, and mass disorder. After a sham trial, Ilgar was sentenced to seven years in prison, where he remains.
Ilgar has been the subject of two separate European Court of Human Rights rulings – both of which found violations of his fundamental freedoms by the government of Azerbaijan – and yet he remains in prison. In October 2014, the Court held that his pre-trial detention was in violation of his right to freedom from arbitrary detention. In its judgment, the Court found a violation of Article 18 of the Human Rights Convention; specifically finding political motivation behind the actions of the government. Since 1959, the Court has found a violation of Article 18 in only five cases, and in every case except Ilgar’s, the applicants were released. A second judgment was issued in November 2017 in which the Court found that his right to a fair trial had been violated.
Because of Azerbaijan’s refusal to carry out the Court’s first judgment, in December 2017, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe launched infringement proceedings. The Committee referred the case back to the Court for it to establish whether Azerbaijan has failed to abide by the judgment. This is the first time in the Council of Europe’s history that the Committee has used this mechanism against a member state. Should the infringement proceedings yield no results, Azerbaijan could eventually risk suspension or expulsion from the Council of Europe.
At an economic forum in March, President Aliyev stated that if the founders of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, “had a chance to see how Azerbaijan develops today, they would have definitely been proud of us.” Most of the international community and Azerbaijani civil society would strongly disagree with this sentiment. However, President Aliyev still has the opportunity to make Azerbaijan’s founding fathers proud. He can begin by immediately and unconditionally releasing Afgan Mukhtarli, Ilgar Mammadov, and all prisoners of conscience in the country. This would be a strong signal that Azerbaijan takes its democratic legacy seriously.