Azerbaijan: Opposition Leaders Sentenced after Flawed Trial

NEW YORK–The sentencing of seven Azeri opposition leaders caps the government’s record of serious human rights violations–flowing from riots over the contentious 2003 presidential election–Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday. The seven Azeri opposition leaders are widely considered political prisoners.

On October 22–the Court of Grave Crimes in Baku sentenced the opposition leaders to prison terms ranging from two and a half to five years of imprisonment on charges of organizing or participating in mass disturbances and resisting or committing violence against a state representative. The charges related to the violence that erupted during protests following the October 2003 presidential elections–which independent observers–including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe–found were fraudulently conducted.

"The lack of basic fair trial standards in this case highlights its political nature," said Holly Cartner–executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. "It also puts into question the sincerity of government attempts to resolve the outstanding issues surrounding the 2003 presidential elections."

Human Rights Watch documented torture in pre-trial detention of four of the seven defendants (see Crushing Dissent: Repression–Violence and Azerbaijan’s Elections at hrw.org/reports/2004/azerbaijan0104/).

Defense lawyers raised allegations of torture in court. Prosecution witnesses in this case also told the court that police and prosecutors had coerced and tortured them to make statemen’s incriminating the opposition leaders.

The judge summoned several law enforcement agents–whom the defendants claimed had tortured them. The officials denied the torture claims and the judge accepted their version over the defendants’ with no further investigation. He then accepted as credible evidence the statemen’s allegedly coerced through the use of torture. The Convention against Torture–to which Azerbaijan is a party–explicitly prohibits the use of evidence coerced under torture. Independent observers also noted that the defendants had only restricted access to counsel.

In the October 2003 presidential election–the government carried out a well-organized campaign of fraud to ensure victory for Ilham Aliyev–in front of the largest international election monitoring team ever deployed in the country. When post-election violence erupted–the government responded with brutal and excessive force–unleashing its security forces to beat hundreds of demonstrators–some to the point of losing consciousness–and killing at least one protester.

Human Rights Watch said that the Azerbaijani government did not prosecute any law enforcement or security agents for torture or excessive use of force during the election fallout.

More than 100 opposition supporters were arrested and charged in the days following the protests. Within six months all of them were convicted of participating in the violence–and more than 30 of them were sentenced to custodial terms ranging from two to six years.

"The flawed trial reinforces an environment of impunity for abuse following the 2003 presidential elections," said Cartner.

The trial of the seven opposition leaders was the last of the trials relating to the post-election violence. In a September report–the rapporteurs for the Committee on the Honoring of Obligations and Commitmen’s by Member States of the Council of Europe described these people as "presumed political prisoners."

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