The March Pardon and #FreeThemAll
What impact have public campaigns had toward the release of a record number of political prisoners in Azerbaijan?
Developments that took place in Azerbaijan in early 2019 were perceived by many as the start of reforms in the country. On 16 March, ahead of the Novruz holiday, 399 people were released from prison as part of a pardon decree issued by the president. There were 52 political prisoners among those people. This was the first time that amnesty had been granted to numerous political prisoners. Local human rights activists and released activists and their lawyers believe that it happened mainly owing to public campaigns in the country where civil activity had not been observed before.
According to estimates by local and international human rights activists, the number of political prisoners in Azerbaijan is one of the largest in Europe. Before the most recent pardon, there were 128 of them. Purges are not only used to intimidate activists, but they are also a foreign policy tool, those rights activists believe. It is for this reason that new names are constantly added to a list of political prisoners in the country that is released regularly by a working group consisting of local rights activists, which was specially established in Azerbaijan. However, Baku denies that there are any political prisoners.
Humanitarian act on part of the government?
Release from prison came as a complete surprise to many of the political prisoners because they had not personally asked the head of state for pardon.
"I believe that a person who committed a crime has to ask for pardon. I spent two years behind bars on bogus charges. I did not ask for [pardon], nor was I expecting it," says Gozal Bayramli, deputy chairwoman of the opposition Popular Front of Azerbaijan Party, who was sentenced to three years in jail for "smuggling".
Public campaigns help
Previously, it was mainly representatives of civil society and political parties who stood up for political prisoners inside the country. However, the story of young blogger Mehman Huseynov sparked major public outcry.
Huseynov is known for his videoblogs about state officials' luxurious mansions. Back at the end of 2018 - two months before the end of a jail term that he got on libel charges, he faced a fresh prison term. At the beginning of 2019, he was charged with beating a prison officer, for which he could have got up to seven years in jail. Local rights activists and civil society representatives believe that it was this development that served as an impetus for ordinary citizens, who do not usually express an active civic position, to come out in active defence of political prisoners.
Several activists and political prisoners behind bars joined a hunger strike that Mehman Huseynov announced in prison. An opposition rally on 19 January demanded the release of Mehman Huseynov and all other political prisoners in the country. That rally may have been the largest one in the past few years. At the very same time, the European Parliament passed a resolution titled "The case of Mehman Huseynov in Azerbaijan", and called on the Azerbaijani government to release all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally.
"Mehman's case is noteworthy because it was at that time that ordinary citizens, who were not members of any political party or organization, demonstrated, perhaps for the first time in their lives, activity as serious as that in social media. We saw people put forward their demands openly, without fear," says Rasul Jafarov, a former political prisoner who initiated the #FreeThemAll campaign.
Ordinary citizens also took a fairly active part in the campaign that was launched by Azerbaijanis on Facebook under the #FreeThemAll hashtag to demand the release of all political prisoners. Thousands of social media users joined the campaign, and #FreeThemAll has been the most popular trend in recent months.
"Could I have demonstrated this much stamina without support from people?"
"Prisoners of the monument" Giyas Ibrahimov and Bayram Mammadov were among those released through the most recent pardon decree. They had got 10-year jail terms after writing anti-government slogans on the pedestal of a monument to former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev. The young men spent almost three years behind bars, and during that period of time their family and lawyers said several times that Giyas and Bayram were tortured in prison.
"It was support from society that helped us persevere. I think it would be hard to say that Bayram Mammadov or I could have demonstrated this much stamina without their support," Giyas Ibrahimov said an interview to Meydan TV immediately after his release.
"I did not expect I would be released"
Ilkin Rustamzade, a member of the youth organization NIDA and one of the organizers of a protest against non-combatant soldier deaths, was also released through the most recent pardon after spending six out of eight years in prison. He told Meydan TV that he did not believe he would be released before the end of his jail term until the very last moment:
"They exercised special attitude toward me in prison. I knew that the government openly ignored the demand of my release that local and foreign rights activists put forward, and for this reason I did not believe that I would be released."
He also speaks about support provided by the local community:
"Opportunities available to the opposition, civil society and media domestically are very limited, and, given this situation, people do their best to defend the rights of political prisoners."
Lawyer Elchin Sadigov, who defended the interests of different political prisoners in the country at different times, also says that it is important to support the local and international community in their defence of political prisoners.
"Active support for political prisoners from the domestic and international community has an important role to play. It is important toward the publicization of violations of their rights and mistreatment exercised toward them in prison and also when they are released. It also gives them major moral support," he says.
Human rights activist Intigam Aliyev, who is the coordinator of the working group that compiles a list of political prisoners, believes that even minor things are important to political prisoners:
"For example, books and postcards can be sent to them. At the beginning of my jail term, prison staff did not talk to me because they were prohibited from doing so. Afterward, when letters, postcards and books from different countries of the world began to arrive, staff from the penitentiary service and the correctional facility changed their attitude to me. It is very important to run campaigns in defence of political prisoners and to meet with their families."
Intigam Aliyev also said that PACE was preparing a report on political prisoners in Azerbaijan:
"That document must definitely be passed because the problem of political prisoners cannot be tackled by pardon decrees. That problem can be tackled by establishing democracy, holding fair elections and ensuring human rights and the independence of civil society. Otherwise, there will always be the problem of political prisoners in this country."
In the meantime, campaigns continue in the country that demand the release of political prisoners. According to estimates by local rights activists, there are more than 70 political prisoners remaining behind bars.
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