Using psychiatry punitively for dissenters in Azerbaijan

“I want the same silicone lips as the First Lady. Why not? She’s an example for us to follow,” says Ziyaafat Abbasova at a rally. And after some time, information about her disappearance spreads on social media. Only a couple of days later, it is revealed that the activist has been placed in a mental institution.

Ziyaafat Abbasova is primarily known for her critical posts on social media and vibrant speeches at rallies.

On April 17, 2023, the police, claiming that the woman has mental issues, admitted her to Republican Psychiatric Hospital No. 1, commonly referred to as the “Mashtagin Hospital.” There, the political activist’s health deteriorated, and she was transferred to Sabunchu City Hospital, from where, again under police direction, she was released on May 24. The first “event” that Ziyaafat Abbasova attended after her discharge was the trial of Zamin Salaev, a member of the Azerbaijan People’s Front Party. Friends greeted her not as someone discharged from a hospital but as someone freed from prison.

Ziyaafat Abbasova is 51 years old. She is a member of the Azerbaijan Party for Democracy and Prosperity, as well as the Azerbaijani National Resistance Movement, and has taken part in numerous protest actions, including demonstrations against the adoption of the “Political Parties Law” in front of the parliament building and protests against Iran’s policy towards Turks in front of the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Baku. Abbasova states that she participates in all actions she learns about, as long as they have a political context.

Photo from the personal archive of Ziyaafat Abbasova.

The criticism of Ziyaafat Abbasova in social media is primarily directed against the social unrest of the people, embezzlement, officials’ abuse of power, and unemployment.

The woman recounts that she was detained and taken to the police station at least ten times during various rallies. She can’t even remember how many times this happened. However, no criminal cases were ever filed against her. The police contented themselves with conducting a “preventive conversation” with her and then releasing her. The main goal of these conversations was to discourage her from participating in protests. To achieve this, the police employed both the “stick” and the “carrot,” but Ziyaafat Abbasova paid no heed to both persuasion and threats.

“They were simply carrying out the orders of Ilham Aliyev, the government.”

On April 18, 2023, Ziyaafat Abbasova suddenly stopped answering her friends’ calls, and after a while, her phone was completely disconnected. The day before, she had agreed with her friends to attend the book presentation by Professor Jamil Gasanli. However, at the agreed time and place, she didn’t show up. As previously mentioned, calls to her went unanswered, causing her friends to become concerned. Their first destination in search of Ziyaafat Abbasova was a police station, as they couldn’t come up with any other explanation for her sudden disappearance. Subsequently, her friends repeatedly called the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) hotline, trying to obtain information about the activist’s whereabouts. It was only the next morning, under pressure, that the MIA gave in and revealed that Ziyaafat Abbasova had been placed in a psychiatric hospital. Given that the information came from the police, not medical professionals, her friends concluded that she had been arrested under the guise of hospitalization.

This news spread on social media. Opposition activists who personally knew Ziyaafat Abbasova or were familiar with her protest activities launched a campaign in her defense. Posts of support started to appear one after another, asserting that Ziyaafat Abbasova had no mental issues, evident from the way she spoke. The consensus was that Ziyaafat Abbasova was sent to the hospital not for treatment but for punishment.

Without a permanent residence, Ziyaafat Abbasova lived in one of the shelters in Baku. It was there that the police detained her a day before her friends initiated the search for her, and she was taken to the 15th police division. Abbasova recalls that over ten plainclothes police officers participated in her arrest. They didn’t identify themselves and didn’t explain the grounds for her detention. She was dragged to their vehicle, forced into the backseat, and taken to the police division.

“They forcibly placed me in the police car. I was covered in bruises: arms, legs, knees,” Abbasova recalls that day.

According to Ziyaafat Abbasova, she didn’t even have time to take her medication. Later, she requested that the police bring her necessary medications from the shelter, but her plea was ignored.

During her time at the police station, they discussed not her mental or psychological issues, but her critical expressions. The police officers tried to convince her that her actions were unlawful. However, according to the activist, she grew tired of these conversations and stopped listening to them. Towards the end of this long day, she was taken to the psychiatric hospital. The doctors there not only didn’t inquire about the woman’s identity or her specific ailment, but they also didn’t conduct any examination. They simply accepted Ziyaafat Abbasova from the police, and that’s how her “treatment” began.

She spent only one day in the psychiatric facility. Then, her health deteriorated, and she was transferred to a regular hospital. Therefore, the remainder of her “sentence” was spent under relatively “lenient conditions.”

The activist herself views her hospitalization as a form of punishment for her criticism and isn’t surprised by it. She has no mental problems, and she perceives her hospitalization as a variation of the arrest.

At the same time, Abbasova is convinced that the police were merely carrying out an order originating from the Azerbaijani government. She associates this with the fact that her hospitalization was not preceded by any legal process.

“They were simply carrying out the orders of Ilham Aliyev, the government. When they forcibly dragged me, I already knew it was an order, and I was expecting it. I had been harshly criticizing the authorities,” says Abbasova.

Pressure on relatives, defamation, blackmail…

According to lawyer Khalid Bagirov, the police lack the authority to intervene in such cases. The police have no right to hand over a patient to a hospital, just as a hospital has no right to accept a patient from the police. And if, as claimed in this case, involuntary hospitalization occurred without a corresponding court order, then, according to Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights (Right to Liberty and Security – everyone has the right to liberty and personal security) and Article 28 of the Constitution of Azerbaijan (The right to freedom can only be restricted by detention, arrest, or deprivation of liberty in accordance with the law), this constitutes unlawful deprivation of liberty. This provides the victim with grounds to appeal to the court.

The Azerbaijani government categorically states that no one in the country is persecuted for their political views. However, human rights reports indicate the opposite. On July 31, the Union for Freedom of Political Prisoners in Azerbaijan (UFPRA) published an updated list of political prisoners, mentioning 204 individuals. This is a record number. Previously, in April, this list comprised 182 individuals.

The updated list, compiled by the director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, Leyla Yunus, and the head of the Center for Monitoring of Political Prisoners, Elshan Gasanov, includes categories such as “Journalists and Bloggers,” “Members of Opposition Parties and Movements,” “Politically Exiled Deportees from Germany,” “Believers,” defendants of the “Terter Case,” and defendants of the “Ganja Case.”

In the 2023 World Press Freedom Index by “Reporters Without Borders,” Azerbaijan ranks 151st out of 180 countries.

However, political activists and independent journalists in Azerbaijan are not only subjected to arrests but also face pressure on their relatives. In particular, when unable to reach activists living abroad, the government sometimes targets their relatives residing in Azerbaijan.

For instance, as a protest against the results of the 2018 presidential elections, political emigrants Tural Sadygly, Magamed Mirzali, and Ordukhan Teymurkhan conducted the “Know the Dictator” campaign in Europe. Afterward, members of their families in Azerbaijan were summoned to the police station and subjected to blackmail. They were demanded to make statements against the mentioned emigrants to obstruct their campaign.

Moreover, the Azerbaijani authorities monitor the private lives of independent journalists and opposition figures and disclose their private correspondence, attempting to damage their reputations in society.

In 2020, rumors circulated on social media about the existence of intimate videos involving independent journalist Sevinj Osmanqizi, who lives in Europe. In other words, not only real videos but even rumors about them, are used against opponents of the authorities.

Alternatively, opposition figures are declared “mentally ill” and placed in hospitals. If even this fails to silence them, the “last resort” becomes arrest.

… and finally the arrest

Currently in prison, Agil Gumbatov, a member of the Azerbaijani Popular Front Party, was also previously placed in a psychiatric hospital shortly before his arrest. His spouse, Aigun Gumbatova, recounts that the police were also responsible for sending him there.

Agil and Aigun Gumbatov have three children aged 9, 7, and 4. Aigun explains that their eldest son has autism, they live in a partially destroyed house, lack the funds for treatment, and she cannot work while leaving three children behind. They survive thanks only to the assistance of friends and acquaintances. When Agil was free, he managed to bring home some money by selling cardboard and plastic collected from dumps.

On March 30, 2020, Agil Gumbatov went out again to collect recyclables, but was apprehended on the street by officers from the Hazar district police department. Subsequently, he was taken to the same Republican Psychiatric Hospital No. 1 in the settlement of Mashtagha. According to Aigun Gumbatova, her husband was released the following day, and upon returning home, he started sharing on social media about the poor conditions in the hospital. Consequently, he was taken back to the psychiatric facility the next day. Due to his involuntary hospitalization, a legal process was even initiated, but his wife could not obtain a court decision.

Through social media, Agil Gumbatov demanded child allowances from the government, accompanying these demands with sharp political criticism. According to Aigun Gumbatova, it was precisely for this reason that her husband was punished.

Agil was discharged from the psychiatric hospital three months later. However, a year and a half later, in 2021, he was arrested, found guilty under Article 124.2.4 of the Criminal Code (Intentional Infliction of Serious Bodily Harm by a Dangerous Method), and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment. Yet, neither Agil Gumbatov nor his spouse agrees with this accusation. Aigun Gumbatova asserts that her husband was falsely accused and that a case was fabricated against him for continuing to criticize the authorities after being discharged from the hospital.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) has not provided any comment on the matters discussed.

Photo from the personal archive of Rasul Jafarov.

But do stories like these attract the attention of the global community? One of the founders of the “Baku Human Rights Club,” human rights defender Rasul Jafarov, states that he cannot recall any instance where the international community has made specific statements or calls on this matter.

Rasul Jafarov regards forced hospitalization as one of the forms of deprivation of liberty. And if the victim fails to achieve justice in local courts, the human rights defender advises turning to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). According to him, there is a high likelihood that the European Court will grant the appeal.

Our respondents, Aigun Gumbatova and Ziyaafet Abbasova, also intend to lodge complaints with the ECHR. Ziyaafet Abbasova plans to do so because she is convinced of the bias of local courts and believes that the government will never punish its own subordinates. According to Aigun Gumbatova, their case has already gone through local court instances, but they couldn’t achieve justice, hence the matter is now in the hands of the European Court.

Supported by “Mediaset”

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