Azerbaijani activist Bayram Mammadov, who was released from prison two weeks ago along with fellow Graffiti sprayer Qiyas Ibrahimli, has been detained again and sentenced to 30 days in jail.
Ibrahimov and Mammadov, both members of Nida Civic Movement (NIDA), were imprisoned in 2016 for spraying “Happy Slave Day" on a statue of Azerbaijan’s late president, Heydar Aliyev. They were sentenced to 10 years in prison on drug charges, which government opponents say are used to intimidate and silence dissident voices.
After he was released along with other prisoners last month, Mammadov said to Turan News Agency: “If I knew that I would have lived more than I have experience in jail, without hesitation, without fear, I'd go to the monument again and do more this time.” That statement reportedly landed him in jail again, although the official reason is said to be “disobeying the order of a police officer.”
Mammadov was one of fifty-one political prisoners, among a total of 431 prisoners released by a presidential pardon, the largest number of political prisoners released in the last decade.
The pardoned prisoners included such high-ranking political figures as a former health minister and two opposition party deputies; a journalist, and NIDA youth movement activist Ilkin Rustamzada, who was jailed for using social media to organize rallies protesting violence in the army.
It is common in Azerbaijan for the president to pardon prisoners on the eve of Novruz, celebrated in the country as the beginning of spring. But it is unusual for political prisoners to be included in the list.
President Ilham Aliyev’s action has created speculation about his motives and the meaning of the release.
Fuad Qahramanli, Peoples Popular Front Party’s (AXCP) deputy chair, said his release is about “people’s power.”
“It is because of the strength of our people that we did not step back under the oppression of the government
We have shown that we are ready for any kind of sacrifice,” Qahramali said, adding that with the pardon, the government proved it won’t be able to go further with its repressive policies.
Alimammad Nuriyev, a member of the president’s Pardon Issues Commission,
the pardon of 431 former prisoners shows that “the head of state is guided by principles of justice, humanism and mercy."
Former health minister Ali Insanov did not agree. “I have come to a large prison from the actual jail,” he
journalists after his release.
Insanov, 71, is a former ally of Heydar Aliyev, the father of current President Ilham Aliyev, and co-founder of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP). He was arrested in 2005 on charges of plotting a coup against Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father in 2003.
But Insanov credited his freedom to “the initiative of the democratic West, America, its leadership, Congress, Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).”
İnsanov said his release is not what the presidential administration calls “humanism."
“Whenever they wanted to arrest somebody, they placed drugs into his pocket … The president was responsible for it. What kind of humanism can we speak about now?" Insanov said.
Azerbaijan has a history of jailing or otherwise punishing political activists and journalists. The Freedom House 2018 report described Azerbaijan as one of “Eurasia’s entrenched autocracies [where] personalized regimes keep a tight grip on power, suppressing political competition and targeting independent activists and journalists who dare to speak out.”
The decree was the 34th pardon signed by President Ilham Aliyev and the 65th amnesty decree in Azerbaijan. Eighty-seven political prisoners are still in jail, according to the Union for Political Prisoners’ Freedom in Azerbaijan. A new social media campaign under the hashtag “freethemall" aims to draw attention to the political prisoners still behind bars.
Government officials deny that there are political prisoners in Azerbaijan and charges the figures from the advocacy union are biased. Government officials say fundamental rights are observed and that citizens are not prosecuted for their opinions or beliefs.
President Aliyev’s pardon of rights activists and political opponents was greeted positively in Azerbaijan and elsewhere. Rasul Jafarov, a human rights defender, called it a “step generating positive emotions around the solution of the political prisoners issue.”
Emin Milli, a critic of the government and director of Meydan TV, an Azerbaijani media platform in exile, expressed gratitude to President Aliyev.
“Our struggle, the public opinion have a great role, but Aliyev's move is his courageous decision," Milli
in a Facebook post calling for more positive changes in governance.
Federica Mogherini, a spokesperson for the European Union’s foreign policy chief,
the pardon “a welcome step." She also said that the EU expects Azerbaijan to step up its international commitments, and said cooperation on human rights issues is an essential element of the relationship between the EU and Azerbaijan.
International rights groups and some Western governments have criticized Azerbaijan’s rights record and urged the Azerbaijani government to release political prisoners for years, Radio Liberty ‘s Azerbaijani Service noted in a web post on the prisoner release.
Stefan Schennach, co-reporter of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for the monitoring of Azerbaijan, told Radio Liberty Azerbaijani Service that the pardon was “a surprise" and that he is not aware of the real reason for the change of heart.
“In the past, Mr. President has been dismissive of the international criticism. So far he has reacted to two pressures, first on the Khadija Ismailova case, second on the Mehman Huseynov case," Schennach was quoted as saying.
Azerbaijan investigative journalist Ismailova was jailed in December 2014 on charges of tax evasion and embezzlement, after her investigative reports exposed corruption of high ranking Azerbaijani officials, including the ruling family members. She was released in May 2016, but placed under a travel ban. Huseynov, a well-known video blogger who was extensively documenting human rights violations in the country, was sentenced to two years imprisonment after he publicly questioned President Aliyev's decision making his wife, Mehriban Aliyev, vice president. He was released on March 2.
Some speculate that negotiations between the European Union and Azerbaijan, set for early April, may have influenced the president’s decision to release so many political prisoners.
“Now Azerbaijan wants to ease its tense ties with the West and prepares to sign a very important agreement with the European Union that will also be a milestone for the country to regulate its relationship with the West,” said Ilgar Mammadov, chair of the Republican Alternative Party (REAL).
Political prisoners have been a major issue in bilateral talks between Azerbaijan and Western countries. The first mass pardoning of prisoners took place in 2001, when Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe.
Ali Karimli, chair of People’s Popular Front Party, called the pardon “good" but “not satisfying" news. He credited a January 19 rally calling for the release of the blogger Huseynov, and public interest in the opposition campaign on behalf of political prisoners with influencing the president’s decision.
“After the January 19 rally, the authorities realized that, along with the international community, it is necessary to reckon with the public. That's why social steps have been taken and a more civilized form of communication has been chosen. Apparently, this decree is a continuation of that policy,” Karimli said
Political opposition was sparked by two events last summer: a malfunction at Azerbaijan Thermal Power Plant in Mingachevir that caused electrical outtages throughout the country, and protests and an assassination attempt in Ganja leading to clashes that left two police officers dead. More unrest occurred in December after the blogger Huseynov was convicted on additional charges, followed by the January 19 rally.
Ali Aliyev, head of the Citizen and Development Party, said the presidential pardon is an attempt “to restore its lost ties with the society."
Altay Goyushov, historian and former member of the REAL party board, said that developments in the Caucasus region, particularly positive changes in Armenia and Georgia, also played a role.
“Aliyev could rightly accuse Kocharyan [former Armenian President] back then, but after Pashinyan [Prime Minister of Armenia] coming to power and the democratic transition in Armenia, Azerbaijan's reactionary image emerged in the region,” Goyushov told Meydan TV, adding some positive changes were needed in Azerbaijan and “the government stepped back."
Eynulla Fatullayev, former imprisoned journalist and editor-in-chief of Russian media platform Haqqin.az, said the decree does not indicate the government’s weakness, but shows the government “with its own decision has closed down the political prisoners issue and it’s done for good."
President Aliyev, in his Novruz greetings to citizens, announced that the country will adopt political, economic and social reforms.
"Reforms will deepen and there is no alternative to reforms… Azerbaijan is getting stronger and more uplifting, " Aliyev
in a video message March 20.
Jafarov, the political rights defender, said: “Political reforms are a must. Without political reforms, it is meaningless to focus on economic, social or any other reforms.”
He urged the government to follow up the pardon decree, which he called “a positive message" to society, and the focus should be on fundamental reforms in such areas as independence of courts and judges, free and democratic elections, media freedom and civil society development.
But REAL party chair Ilgar Mammadov said the pardon has nothing to do with reforms, but instead shows “how the government is lost."
“Money is declining in Azerbaijan, economic opportunities are tightening. Of course, the previous method of governance in Azerbaijan is no longer the case and therefore the regime chooses a new form to reclaim their old management,” Mammadov said.
Ibrahimli, jailed in 2016 on graffiti charges with Bayram Mammodov, said upon his release last month: “If we are released today, it is the retreat of the power.” He also said that the freedom fighters should not stop but use the chance “to make it the beginning of something new."