No Rule of Law in Azerbaijan Says Human Rights Watch Report

*The international human rights watchdog group urges that abusive security forces–corruption–must be brought under control.

NEW YORK–Azeri security forces regularly torture those in custody–and get away with it–according to a report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch. The international monitoring group charged that Azerbaijan has failed to enact legal reforms and that corruption is rampant in the criminal justice system.

"There is an overwhelming lack of public confidence in the criminal justice system in Azerbaijan," said Holly Cartner–executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division. "Citizens are being preyed upon by corrupt and abusive police. At the same time–they have nowhere to turn for redress."

The 57-page report–entitled "Azerbaijan: Impunity for Torture," describes how the Ministry of Internal Affairs often keeps detainees in a state of isolation from the outside world–including from lawyers and relatives–allowing torture to take place in virtual secrecy. Before their trial–detainees do not have even minimal access to the courts to review the grounds of their detention or complain about their treatment.

Corruption is rampant. In one case–a Baku resident told researchers that his son was beaten to death in police custody before he was able to sell his family’s household possessions to raise the full amount of a bribe requested by police for his son’s release.

In more than twenty cases investigated by Human Rights Watch–no judge ruled inadmissible confessions or testimony reported to have been gained through torture. Since torture frequently occurs under conditions which only the torturers and the victim witness–a key piece of evidence to substantiate a claim of torture later in court is a prompt and impartial medical exam. But–as the report notes–Azeri law leaves it entirely to the discretion of the police or procuracy to approve a detainee’s request for the medical examination.

In some of the cases examined–judges refused requests for medical exams once a case was sent to trial. In other instances when judges did agree to the exam–too much time had passed after a lengthy period of detention to allow a doctor to establish the cause of injuries.

Azeri law gives the procuracy broad and vague powers to extend the length of detentions indefinitely without consulting a judge. This allows signs of torture such as bruises–broken bones–and burns to heal and fade while detainees are warehoused with little contact with the outside world in overcrowded pre-trial prisons known as "investigative isolators."

The report found that torture and physical abuse of detainees is widespread and systematic for both those detained under suspicion of committing political offenses and those suspected of non-political crimes.

"Poor human rights conditions and high levels of corruption show the government’s general disrespect for the rule of law and the international commitmen’s it has made," said Cartner. "This disrespect doesn’t bode well for foreign investment in Azerbaijan. Sustained economic development cannot take place in an environment where the government shows such disregard for human rights–transparency–and the rule of law."

Cartner noted that many US and European policy makers want to increase economic assistance to Azerbaijan and to companies to offset the costs of oil and gas pipeline projects to bring energy reserves to Western markets. She warned that the level of corruption and abuse in the Azeri system should be a cause of concern to any investor or policy maker who intends to make a long-term commitment to the country.

Cartner said that reform of the legal system needed to proceed in a transparent manner to ensure that new legislation conforms with international standards and that lawyers–non-governmental advocates for detainee rights–and the public are included in the debates about draft legislation.

In its recommendations–Human Rights Watch called on the World Bank to expand its capacity to review judicial systems and criminal procedures to enable the institution to identify areas that are not in compliance with international human rights law and standards–and to assist in the formulation of lending targets in these areas. Human Rights Watch believes that the World Bank–along with other multilateral and bilateral lending institutions– should set targets for legal reforms in these areas and promptly discontinue lending if targets are not met.

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