On May 26 the verdict was read on the case against the chair of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDSC), Anar Mammadli, executive director of EMDSC, Bashir Suleymanli, and the president of the Volunteers International Cooperation Public Union, Elnur Mammadov at the Court of Grave Crimes.
Mr. Mammadli was sentenced to five and a half and Mr. Suleymanli to three and a half years in prison, while Mr. Mammadov got three and a half years on condition. Mr. Suleymanli was arrested at the courtroom.
Addressing the judge Mr. Mammadli expressed his opinion on the sentence by saying: “Just abuse Femida and let’s get this over with.”
Prior to the verdict, Mr. Mammadli delivered his closing speech:
Dear court members and trial participants,
First of all, we would like to thank lawyers, journalists, local and international human rights organizations, political parties and civil society activists for their support during the last six months since the criminal case against EMDS and VIS was launched. I would like to also thank everyone who supported me and my family in the last five months that I have been in detention.
Azerbaijan will chair Council of Europe’s Council of Ministers for the next six months. Atletico Madrid carries “Azerbaijan Land of Fire” sign on their T-shirts. These could be a good promotion for our country. However, unfortunately, our country is to be known not as a “land of fire” but as a “Land of political prisoners” instead.
The prosecution describes Bashir Suleymanli’s, Elnur Mammadov’s and my work at the EMDS and Volunteers International Cooperation as activity of several collaborating persons with grave criminal consequences. This is the evidence of groundless, illegal and intolerant position of the prosecution, more precisely, the Prosecutor General’s Office and indirectly the Government of the Republic of Azerbaijan towards its citizens’ public union for organizing domestic election monitoring. In fact, whether the state bodies of Azerbaijan recognize our public union or not, the legal basis for functioning of our organization is provided by the Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the international documents joined by Azerbaijan – the United Nations documents, European Human Rights Convention, the OSCE Helsinki Final Act, Copenhagen and Moscow documents.
We have been a domestic election monitoring group of citizens working towards holding free and democratic elections, and improving existing election legislation and practice. The group operated as EMC from 2001 to 2008 and as EMDS from 2008 to 2013. Therefore, I consider our depiction as group organized for criminal purposes as harassment and pressure against freedom of association, assembly and expression!
I am accused of engaging in illegal entrepreneurship without creating a legal entity, while I was acting as an individual taxpayer. However, I have never been involved either in legal or illegal entrepreneurship in my life. On May 14, 2008 the Khatai District Court annulled the registration of the EMC on the basis of illegal claim of the Ministry of Justice in the most classic example of political discrimination against the domestic election observers and independent civil society in Azerbaijan. After this, as founders and members of the EMC, we had to establish a new organization – EMDS.
Despite two appeals to the Ministry of Justice, the government illegally and groundlessly refused to recognize the union that we founded and continued to demonstrate intolerance towards us. However, they often forget that denial of registration of an NGO does not mean that the organization should cease its activities. Because the freedom of association is a fundamental right of every citizen of this country, and it is the duty of the state to recognize this right without any political discrimination.
It is correct that the European precedent law prohibits functioning of NGOs created for criminal purposes and organizations inciting political, national, racial, religious and sexual discrimination. However, our activities have never included such. As far as I know, our national legislation does not include domestic election observation among illegal activities and therefore our activities cannot be considered as that of public union established for criminal purposes.
In fact, Azerbaijani government has failed to implement its duties with regard to EMC and EMDS, and has consistently violated right to freedom of association of founders and members of EMDS since 2008. As a result, though with difficulty, we implemented our programs on election monitoring, citizen participation in public administration, enhancing accountability of elected state bodies as an NGO without registration.
All programs implemented by our organization were funded entirely by grants from foreign funds and embassies. In order to conduct financial operations of these programs in a transparent way, I have used my Tax Payer Identification Number registered with the Ministry of Taxes in 2006. Transfer and management of grant funds to the bank account that I opened as an individual were carried out transparently and all related taxes were paid.
For example, during 2008-2013, a total of 480,000 AZN was transferred to my bank accounts for implementing EMDS programs, and documents and reports about expenditure of these funds were provided to the investigation. Being grants, these funds were not VAT-taxable, while we paid 12,000 AZN to the state as taxes and social payments for salaries and contractual services.
There are two sides of the story in our cooperation with the registered NGOs – VIC and DJS.
1) EMDS did not have state registration
2) Restrictive changes into legislation on March 11, 2013 made registration of grants even more complicated.
As I mentioned before, due to the lack of registration I undertook financial liabilities of EMDS for the grants it has received. However, upon changes to legislation in March 2013, registration of grants became oligatory and since then I had no right to sign grant agreements as an individual on behalf of EMDS. Because the new legislation requires registration of grants to commercial entities in the Minisry of Economic Development and grants to non-commercial entities in the Ministry of Justice. As no option was given to individuals, receiving grants, the contracts signed with individuals could not be registered.
Due to these reasons we decided to cooperate with registered NGOs – Public Union for Volunteers’ International Cooperation (VIC) and Democratic Journalism School (DJS) regarding our projects related to the Presidential Elections in October 2013.
I am stating again, that the cooperation of VIC and DJS with EMDS was based on legal necessity and was absolutely within the law. For that reason, out of two projects we carried out in 2013, I led one and Bashir Suleymanli led the other.
When it comes to the charges against us, I state with absolute confidence that the investigation failed to prove any of its allegations. Given the realities of Azerbaijan and political nature of the charges brought against us, I have to clarify all the charges myself.
As the article of the Criminal Code 213.1 related to projects I carried out as an individual from 2008 to 2013 is concerned, there was absolutely no evasion of the income or social security taxes in those projects. If they mean that the projects implemented in cooperation with VIC and DJS in 2013 supposed to pay VAT tax, it is absolute nonsense. According to laws, all grants in the country are tax-free. For instance, none of the projects funded by the State Fund for Support to NGOs – which is considered to be a “glorious example” of national fundraising, are taxable. Then why we, receiving grants from abroad, should pay VAT?
Second charge is related to illegal entrepreneurship. This charge is so ridiculous that I don’t even want to speak about it.
Based on the article 308.2 of the Criminal Code, we are accused of harming the interests of state and society and influencing the results of elections by abusing our authority. Honestly, I did not even understand this charge. If you really mean that the election results were influenced, we were just an election monitoring group. We didn’t have any authority or chance to influence election results. The local authorities, budget organizations, municipalities, or election commissions might be a subject to this article of the Criminal Code. Our ten year election monitoring experience show that those who illegally influence the election results, are the employees of abovementioned organizations. If we had a chance to influence the way of conduct of elections, we would achieve democratic electoral system in our country. This article cannot concern us for one more reason. There was nothing against the state’s or society’s interests in our activity. Just the opposite, Azerbaijani society has benefited from the reports, recommendations and legislative initiatives of EMC and EMDS in 2007-2013. Our unbiased and objective election monitoring helped to record the alternative history of Azerbaiijani election system and keep trace of political processes of our country.
The other charge is an allegation on embezzlement of the funds and goods trusted to us. However, the indictment is not clear on whose funds and goods we embezzled. For example, according to the indictment, embezzlement concerns goods and funds worth AZN 41,000 within the projects implemented by me in 2008-2012 and shows the group of people as victims. First of all, these people have never complained on embezzlement and never had any claims to me or any other employee of the project. How come they turned into victims?
Obviously, allegations of investigators have no basis and there were no legal motivations to start this criminal case. Then the question is: why the political authorities ordered to launch this case? Of course, the main reason is that we – as an election watchdog, exposed gross violations of Azerbaijani legislation and international election principles during the Presidential Elections of 2013.
Thus, the government decided to punish and discredit us and blackmail our international partners. I want to emphasize that the government is in denial of the fact that we carry out useful and important activity based on voluntary, patriotic will and democratic assembly of its citizens. Azerbaijani government thinks that our activity for election monitoring, accountability of elected officials and building informed citizenship, aware of state management is dictated by foreign powers. Azerbaijani authorities just show how far behind they have fallen from the national and political ideology, formed as early as in the beginning of 20th century.
It seems to me, we have to remind again and again, that current Azerbaijan republic should not be a formal and lame hair of Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, founded in 1918, but must become a real, legal, political and moral successor of ADR.
Free and fair elections are essential to build the democratic and mundane state with rule of law, the one that was dreamt by political thinkers Mirza Fatali Akhundov, Fatali Khan Khoyski, Topchibashev and Rasulzade. We are absolutely sure that it will be impossible to establish social justice, rule of law, respect to human rights and liberties, and off course, territorial integrity and national security unless the government is elected by free and fair elections.
I want to remind the quote from Mahammad Amin Rasulzade’s speech made in 1950 in Ankara, on the occasion of 30 years of Azerbaijan’s occupation by the Soviets:
“Azerbaijani people should deliver restoration of independence as a historical mission to the future generations. However, the first mission of the generation that will restore the independence will be to ensure social justice and get rid of political injustice.” These ideas coming from Rasulzade are one more proof that our [as an election watchdog] mission and goals in the past ten years were aimed to serve national interests.
I am very sorry that in 22 years since the restoration of independence so desired by Rasulzade, we failed to ensure social justice and respect to political rights. 22 years might seem as a very short period to some of you, but I feel unbearable pain every time I see in Kurdakhani pre-trial detention center young, 20-22 years-old political prisoners, like Shahin Novruzlu, Abdul Abilov, Mahammad Azizov, Bakhtiyar Guliyev, Elsavar Mursalli, Ilkin Rustamzade, Omar Mammadov and others – the youth, who are of the same age as our independence. I feel pain for the years we have failed…
It is very trendy in Azerbaijan to praise the growing budget, economic development and investment projects, which were fulfilled thanks to the oil money. To show the progress, this development is often compared to the economic situation in Armenia and Georgia, not the Baltic states. By using the oil wealth properly, we could have achieved prosperity like in Baltic states, but this didn’t happen. Because we did not ally with THE TIME, or to be more precise, we could not, were not allowed to do it.
THE TIME was on our side, but we decided to be its enemy. Why? Mainly because the government’s approach to THE TIME – to the notions of development and achievements, is coming from old, post-Soviet mentality.
In this difficult moment I want to remember once again the imprisoned young people, who are of the same age as our independence. I have always tried to work for their sake – to become their ally, and thus become an ally of modernity and future. And I will keep doing that and will always stay a friend of THE TIME.