Azerbaijan: Opposition Youth Activists on Trial

Reuters, UK
March 31 2006

30 Mar 2006 21:38:18 GMT

Source: Human Rights Watch

(New York, March 31, 2006) - The Azerbaijani government must ensure a
fair trial for three opposition youth leaders whose trial begins
today in Baku, Human Rights Watch said today. The case against the
youth leaders originated with their arrest before the November 2005
parliamentary polls that the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe, the European Union and others declared to have
fallen well short of international standards. Ruslan Bashirli, head
of the Yeni Fikir (New Thinking) youth group, is charged with
attempting to forcefully overthrow the government and of engaging in
illegal business activities. Yeni Fikir deputy heads Said Nuri and
Ramin Tagiev face identical charges.

"The context and timing of the arrest of the Yeni Fikir leaders
suggests that the case is politically motivated," said Holly Cartner,
executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia
division. "It also casts an even darker shadow on the 2005
parliamentary elections, which were blatantly fraudulent."

Azerbaijani authorities arrested the three Yeni Fikir leaders in
August and September 2005, in the run-up to the November
parliamentary elections. Yeni Fikir is closely aligned to the
opposition Popular Front Party. Prior to the elections, authorities
arrested dozens of other individuals, including many former
government officials and prominent business leaders, who are alleged
to have ties to opposition parties. These individuals similarly face
charges of attempting to overthrow the government and committing
other crimes against the state.

On August 6, law enforcement officers in camouflage uniforms and
black masks arrested Ruslan Bashirli. The next day the Prosecutor
General's Office charged Bashirli with attempting to forcefully
overthrow the government and accused him of meeting with Armenian
security service officers in Georgia in July and accepting U.S.$2,000
from them. Bashirli was then questioned for two days in the presence
of a state-appointed lawyer instead of the lawyer he had explicitly
chosen at the time as defense counsel. Bashirli informed his own
lawyer that during this questioning, law enforcement officers
pressured Bashirli to give evidence against Ali Keremli, leader of
the Popular Front Party, suggesting that if he made a statement on
television implicating Keremli, he would be released within 24 hours.
Bashirli refused to make such a statement.

Human Rights Watch has spoken with Bashirli's lawyer, who states that
Bashirli maintains that the meeting in Georgia indeed took place, but
he believed that his counterparts were members of civil society
organizations and that the funds were intended to support
democratization activities. On September 12, police arrested Said
Nuri and charged him also with attempting to violently overthrow the
government. The authorities accused him of organizing weapons and
equipment for a coup in Azerbaijan while he was in Poland in late
July and early August. Nuri was in Poland during this period for a
conference sponsored by the European Institute for the Furtherance of
Democracy, a Vienna-based organization that supports individuals and
organizations working to promote democracy in Southern and Eastern
Europe. On September 14, police arrested Ramin Tagiev on the same
charge and accused him of "molding opinion about the falsity of
elections among the population."

Since these arrests, prosecutors have also charged the three men with
illegal business activity.

For days after Bashirli's arrest, state-controlled Azerbaijani
television showed video footage of him drinking at a table with two
men who the government alleges are Armenian agents, and another
member of Yeni Fikir, Osman Alimuradov. The prosecuting authorities
claimed that the men alleged to be Armenian agents filmed the meeting
and then gave the video cassette to Alimuradov, threatening to use it
against the Yeni Fikir members should they change their minds about
cooperation.

The government further alleges that it was Alimuradov who began to
have second thoughts and decided to inform the Azerbaijani
authorities about Bashirli and handed over the tape as evidence. It
is not clear how the television station received copies of the video
tape.

Posters showing still photographs from this video, alongside graphic
photographs allegedly depicting bodies of Azerbaijanis killed and
mutilated by Armenian forces during the Nagorno-Karabakh war,
implicating Bashirli in collusion with Armenian security agents, were
displayed in public places widely throughout Baku. It is not clear
who created or distributed these posters.

"Azerbaijan's government is known for pressing charges against
opposition figures for what appear to be political reasons, and the
Yeni Fikir case fits this pattern," said Cartner. "We are deeply
concerned that the three men will not get a fair trial."

Azerbaijan has a history of arresting opposition figures during
election periods and convicting them without guaranteeing basic fair
trial standards. In October 2003, following fraudulent presidential
elections and post-election violence, seven opposition leaders were
convicted on charges of organizing or participating in mass
disturbances and resisting or committing violence against a state
representative. Human Rights Watch documented torture in the
pre-trial detention of four of the seven defendants. Prosecution
witnesses in this case also told the court that police and
prosecutors had coerced and tortured them to make statements
incriminating the opposition leaders. It is widely considered that
the convicted opposition leaders are political prisoners.


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