What problems are encountered by people who have fallen out of favor with the Azerbaijani government?
Arrests, arm-twisting, pressure on relatives, dismissal from work of those close to you; this list can likely be expanded.
But today we’re going to talk about that which exerts the greatest psychological pressure on those who disagree with the political powers: a ban on leaving the country.
More than just a few people in Azerbaijan have lost the ability to travel during the past few years. Administrative bodies prevent these people from traveling by various means, sometimes completely illegally. Among the victims of the travel ban are human rights activists, journalists, opposition figures and entrepreneurs.
11 years without a passport
The government began making life hard for the opposition already a while back – though back then these were only isolated instances. Back in 2006 the leader of the Azerbaijani Popular Front Party (APFP), Ali Kerimli, was denied a passport. For this reason, he has not travelled to a foreign country for 11 years now.
The formal basis for the denial of a passport was a criminal case brought against him back in 1994. Ali Kerimli was detained at that time during unsanctioned opposition rallies. The police claim that a hand grenade was found in his pocket.
Kerimli was soon released, but the case was not closed.
Despite this, the leader of the APFP was twice elected a deputy of the Azerbaijani parliament in 1995 and 2000. However, when his passport expired in 2006, the Ministry of Internal Affairs refused to issue him a new document, basing this decision on the 1994 criminal case.
The denial has been declared illegal on multiple occasions by Azerbaijani lawyers and human rights activists.
Kerimli went through all levels of judicial review in trying to receive a passport – in the district, appeals, and Supreme Courts – and was denied everywhere. In 2009 he appealed to the European Court for Human Rights, which in 2015 addressed Kerimli’s claims and acknowledged the refusal to grant a passport as a serious rights violation.
But Kerimli has nevertheless not been issued a passport. At present the party leader cannot leave the country. Kerimli himself thinks that in denying him a passport the government is preventing him from traveling to various events and speaking about the realities of the situation in Azerbaijan.
The second absurd instance took place with the lawyer Asabali Mustafayev. In 2016 the lawyer had his foreign travel passport and identity card voided. Nobody presented the lawyer with any rational explanation for this.
After a year of legal proceedings, Mustafayev received his documents, but it became clear at that point that the lawyer is not allowed to leave. The “ban” on Mustafayev was immediately requested by two different authorities: the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Ministry of Taxes.
Commenting on such bans, lawyer Fariz Namazli explained that in both cases the decision was made illegally.
“The ban on Mustafayev leaving the country was requested by two authorities. The first, the prosecutor’s office, had no basis for this, because the lawyer was included as a witness in a case involving non-governmental organizations which was opened in 2014. The legislation of Azerbaijan makes no provisions for banning travel abroad for witnesses in a criminal case”.
The second ban against the lawyer was requested by the Ministry of Taxes. The Sumqayit Municipal Court made the decision regarding the ban. But Fariz Namazly says that in this case the ban cannot enter into force.
“After the court’s decision, Mustafayev made an appeal, this complex case was dragged out, and the appeals court has not yet decided whether or not this ban is legal. And until the appeals court decides, the decision cannot be put into effect”.
A former political prisoner, imprisoned within the country…
Perhaps the most famous of the “blacklisted” are the journalist Khadija Ismailova and human rights activist Intiqam Memmedov.
Law-enforcement agencies explain the ban on these individuals leaving the country by claiming that both were released from prison on house arrest, and as such have no right to leave the country. However, lawyers insist that the cases against the human rights activists were fabricated and the limitations on their freedom of movement are illegal.
The Bar Association of Azerbaijan will not accept Intiqam Aliyev into their ranks, but it is his efforts which have helped many to defend their rights in the European Court for Human Rights and to receive compensation from the government. Because of this, the government of Azerbaijan isn’t a bag fan of his.
Intiqam Aliyev spent around two years in prison on fabricated charges. In 2014, while in Prague, he received information that criminal cases had been launched against him and other leaders of nongovernmental organizations, which might threaten them with arrest upon their arrival in Baku.
“At that point, I could have not returned to the country. I said live on Radio Liberty that I didn’t intend to remain in Europe, that I must to return to Baku, and that I am prepared for arrest. I returned, and in August 2014 I was arrested. On the basis of this same verdict I’m not allowed to change my place of residence, which is in effect a ban on leaving the country”.
The lawyer believes that such phenomena have become de-facto policy over the past years. Such punitive measures are used primarily against members of NGOs and independent journalists.
“The goal is to inhibit the normal activities of government critics. For example, I am a member of the European Union expert commission on legislative issues. I am often invited to various PACE, OSCE, UN and EU events. However, I should say that, despite the verdict by the Plenum of the Supreme Court, I was released to Strasbourg so that I could speak before PACE and undergo medical examination. They probably supposed that either I won’t return to Azerbaijan, or I’ll be more reserved during my speech…”.
In Aliyev’s opinion, the government didn’t like his speech to PACE.
“After that trip, I wasn’t allowed to leave anymore. In October and November I even made a court appeal to be allowed to leave, because I received an invitation to participate in OSCE and PACE events. However, we were told that there is no such allowance for adjusting the rights of an individual serving a suspended sentence”.
Don’t come back, or you’ll never leave again!
Recently arrested and sentenced blogger Mehman Huseynov has been blacklisted since 2012.
A fabricated criminal case was brought against him back then.
“At that time, a court ruling set the investigative period at three months, during which I was forbidden from leaving not just the country: I didn’t even have the right to leave Baku without permission”.
About five years have passed since that time, but this ‘three-month’ investigative period has yet to come to an end. Throughout these five years, each and every time that he has needed to go to some region of Azerbaijan, Huseynov must request the permission from an investigator.
Mehman thinks that the government is punishing him in this way. But he has a thoroughly calm attitude towards this dilemma.
“They want to keep me on a short leash. They think that I’m suffering from the fact that I can’t leave the country. But this is fine with me. I want my country to transform into Europe, not leave it to go there [Europe]”.
The only thing that’s unpleasant for the blogger is that he cannot see his brother, Emin Huseynov. Emin was stripped of his Azerbaijani citizenship several years ago. At present, Emin has received political asylum in Switzerland, and the brothers can’t see one another. Mehman says, “This isn’t a big tragedy, I see this as a temporary difficulty. My activities are connected with Azerbaijan. I am a video-blogger who records illegal activities and rights violations in Azerbaijan. For this, there’s no need to leave the country”.
The video-blogger says that even if the ban on him leaving is removed, he won’t travel abroad for some time, simply based on principle. “Let them see that I’m here”.
Huseynov said these words before he was sentenced to two years in prison in early March.
Such a situation is typical for all ‘politicized’ people
Lawyer Fariz Namazli tells how the problem of travel bans is one also encountered by entrepreneurs who owe taxes.
“But in this case, there is nothing illegal. Sometimes they attain the right to leave the country by going through the necessary procedures. Whereas illegal travel bans are usually encountered by journalists, human rights activists, and, as they say here, the ‘politicized’”.
And though, according to the law, witnesses in criminal cases cannot be banned from leaving, there are, at this moment, around fifteen journalists in Azerbaijan whose rights have been restricted in this way.
Around five of these ‘banned witnesses’ have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.