Locked in a double iron cage in a packed courtroom, Azerbaijani activist and regime critic Rasul Jafarov saw his trial open on Thursday.
Detained since 2 August, Jafarov stands accused of crimes including tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, abuse of office and forgery. The charges are widely believed to be trumped up and in connection to his human rights campaigning works. He could be sentenced to up to 12 years in prison.
Citing a lack of evidence of guilt, Jafarov’s lawyers requested the case be dropped, reported contact.az. They also asked, among other things, that he be allowed to sit with them. Both requests were denied.
The case against Jafarov is part of an ongoing onslaught against critical civil society by Azerbaijani authorities. Campaigners Leyla and Arif Yunus and lawyer Intigam Aliyev were all arrested around the same time as Jafarov, and remain in detention. Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who has reported on official corruption, was detained on 5 December 2014. Journalist Seymur Hazi, who has worked for Index journalism award winning Azadliq newspaper, is also in detention. There are currently more than 90 reported political prisoners in Azerbaijan.
In a recent development, authorities raided the Azerbaijan bureau of the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Jafarov, 30, is chairman of the organisation Human Rights Club, and one of Azerbaijan’s most prominent human rights activists. When capital Baku hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012, he organised the Sing for Democracy campaign to draw attention to rights abuses by President Ilham Aliyev’s government. Aliyev has been in power since 2003, succeeding his father Heydar. In 2013 he was re-elected for a third term, amid claims of voting fraud.
Jafarov was also planning on staging a Sport for Rights campaign when the inaugural European Olympics come to Baku this summer.
In August, he wrote an appeal to the international community from jail, saying that “the past 2-3 years everyone was asking half-joking, half-serious, when I was going to be arrested. It happened, and now I’m looking forward to your support!”
“As we focus on threats to free expression in countries like France in the wake of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, it is vital that we remember the plight of the thousands of individuals worldwide facing daily harassment, threats of violence, and detention, for exercising their rights to free speak freely,” said Index CEO Jodie Ginsberg.
“Azerbaijan is one of the world’s worst countries for free speech. We call on the Azerbaijan government to release Rasul, and others detained for attempting to speak out about the country’s deplorable human rights record. We also urge other governments – who have professed so volubly in recent days their believe in the importance of free speech — to join our call for Rasul’s release.”
“The arrest of Rasul Jafarov, along with other main human rights defenders in Azerbaijan, such as Intigam Aliyev, Leyla Yunus, Anar Mammadli or journalist Khadija Ismayil, shows how the authorities handle critics: there is no space for dialogue in society but enough space for repression and imprisonment,” Florian Irminger, head of advocacy at the Human Rights House Foundation, said.