ECHR ruling: Case of human rights lawyer part of ‘troubling pattern’

Intigam Aliyev

Intigam Aliyev

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has found a number of violations in Azerbaijan’s investigation and detention of well-known human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev.

Intigam Aliyev's case goes back to 2014. In May of that year, Azerbaijan’s Prosecutor General launched a criminal investigation into his activities as a lawyer. In August, Aliyev was arrested and charged with illegal entrepreneurship, large-scale tax evasion, and abuse of power. Held in pre-trial detention for 10 months, he was convicted and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison in April 2015. He later received a conditional early release in March 2016.

The ECHR found today that the search of Aliyev’s home and office during the criminal investigation, the seizure of his files, and his subsequent detention were intended to “punish and silence him as a critic of the Government and human rights activist." In addition, the Court went on to state that the case was part of “a troubling pattern of arbitrary arrest and detention of critics of the government and civil society and human rights activists.”

“This decision is a damning indictment of the Azerbaijani authorities’ treatment of human rights defenders and other activists and critics, in identifying a pattern of arbitrary, punitive arrests and retaliatory prosecutions,” said the Director of the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC), Prof. Philip Leach. EHRAC is one of Aliyev's representatives before the Court. “The Court also highlights the systematic failure of the domestic courts to provide any measures of protection and calls on the Government to stop the misuse of the criminal law in these ways. Time then for more concerted action from the international community to ensure that the rule of law is respected in Azerbaijan.”

Among the other violations found, the Court ruled that authorities had charged and arrested Aliyev on insufficient evidence. The charges of illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion were not supported by any documents and the donors who had provided funding for Aliyev’s organization have never complained that money was spent improperly.

Aliyev’s complaints also concerned the conditions in which he was held in pre-trial detention as well as a lack of adequate medical treatment while in custody. The Court upheld his claim that the conditions of pre-trial detention, during which he was kept in a cramped cell and forced to share beds with other inmates, were in violation of Article 3. Two other claims, however, were rejected. The Court ruled that Aliyev had not provided sufficient evidence of inadequate medical treatment, and it dismissed on a technicality his complaint about the conditions in which he was transported to court, stating that he had not yet exhausted his options within the Azerbaijani legal system.

Azerbaijan has been ordered to pay Aliyev 20,000 EUR in damages and 6,150 EUR in expenses.

Although he was released from prison early, Intigam Aliyev still faces harassment from authorities. After criticizing the Azerbaijani government at a Council of Europe conference in June 2016, upon his return home he was placed under a travel ban. Aliyev has been unable to leave Azerbaijan for any reason, including medical treatment, ever since. The use of arbitrary travel bans has become in recent years a standard tool for harassing human rights defenders, independent journalists, and opposition activists in Azerbaijan.

The entire legal profession has been under increased pressure in Azerbaijan since 2017 when the right to represent clients in court was restricted to members of the Bar Association. In 2003-2004, after joining the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan agreed to expand the role of non-Bar lawyers and lay practitioners in the courts. In a country where the Bar Association is heavily politicized, this system allowed many human rights lawyers to continue their work despite government pressure. The decision to bar representation by non-Bar lawyers has been harshly criticized by Azerbaijani civil society and international human rights organizations. Intigam Aliyev himself has been denied admission to the Bar since 2005.

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