Azerbaijan releases 16 political prisoners

Travel blogger, journalist, and 14 members of Muslim Unity Movement released from prison

On 11 September, Azerbaijan released 16 political prisoners. The blogger Alexander Lapshin was pardoned by President Ilham Aliyev, Turan Information Agency director Mehman Aliyev was released from custody and placed under house arrest, and 14 prisoners convicted after the 2015 incident in Nardaran were released early by court order.

Blogger Alexander Lapshin pardoned

On 11 September, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signed an executive order to pardon the travel blogger Alexander Lapshin. “Israeli citizen Alexander Lapshin (born in 1976), who was sentenced to a prison term, is being released from serving his sentence,” says the order signed by the head of state. The order is effective from the date of signing.

Ali Hasanov, presidential aide for public and political affairs, commented on the presidential order. He said that Lapshin tried to commit suicide yesterday. “However, prison guards were able to thwart his attempted suicide in a timely manner. The blogger received medical assistance and is being monitored by doctors,” Hasanov said.

Lapshin, a popular Russian-speaking travel blogger, was sentenced to three years in prison for illegally crossing Azerbaijan’s state borders and for statements threatening the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.

In 2011 and 2012 Lapshin visited the breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, resulting in his being banned from entering Azerbaijan. However in 2016 the blogger, who has Russian, Ukrainian, and Israeli citizenship, visited Baku using his Ukrainian passport where his name is spelled differently (Oleksandr) than in Russian or Azeri (Aleksandr). At the request of Azerbaijani authorities, Belarus extradited Lapshin in February 2017.

Mehman Aliyev transferred to house arrest

On 11 September, the Yasamal district court in Baku changed the measure of restraint against Mehman Aliyev, the director of Turan news agency. Aliyev has been released from custody and placed under police supervision, Mehman Aliyev’s defence lawyer Fuad Agayev said.

Before the news was broken today, Ali Hasanov, the Azerbaijani president’s aide for public and political affairs, commented for the state-run news agency Azertaj on the situation regarding the case of Mehman Aliyev, the director of Turan news agency. He said that Mehman Aliyev had asked the head of the state to replace the preventive measure against him in the form of arrest with house arrest. “The president gave orders to relevant authorities to consider changing the measure of restraint to house arrest.”

On 25 August, the Azerbaijani Tax Ministry’s department for the preliminary investigation of tax crimes launched criminal proceedings against Mehman Aliyev under articles 213.1 (tax evasion) and 308.1 (abuse of power) of the Criminal Code of the Azerbaijani Republic. In addition, Aliyev was charged with Article 192.2 (illegal business) of the Criminal Code of the Azerbaijani Republic.

International organizations have condemned the arrest of Mehman Aliyev and called for his immediate release. The US Department of State also called for the immediate release of Mehman Aliyev. The French, British, and German foreign ministries expressed concern about the arrest of Aliyev and urged the Azerbaijani government to honour its international commitments regarding human rights. On 6 September, a group of prominent Azerbaijanis, including the chairman of Azerbaijan’s Writers’ Union, Anar Rzayev, three MPs, and several journalists and academics, published an open letter to the president in support of the imprisoned journalist.

14 prisoners from Nardaran granted early release

A group of people who were convicted following the events in the settlement of Nardaran near Baku were released on 11 September before their prison terms ended. According to information available to Meydan TV, 14 people who were arrested during a special operation conducted in the village on 26 November 2015 were released early by court order.

On 26 November 2015, police carried out a special operation in Nardaran, in the course of which four members of the Muslim Unity movement and two police officers were killed. During the special operation, security forces detained 14 people, including Taleh Baghirzade, theologian and the leader of the Muslim Unity movement.

On 25 January 2017, a court in Baku handed down guilty verdicts against the leader of the Muslim Unity Movement, Taleh Baghirzadeh, and 17 of his supporters. Baghirzadeh and his deputy Abbas Huseynov were sentenced to 20 years in prison.

On 21 July 2017, the Baku Court of Appeal upheld the verdict passed following the riots in the settlement of Nardaran. The court issued its ruling in the absence of defense lawyers, who described it as a violation of the defendants’ rights to defense.

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