Coronavirus vs. Azerbaijan's Opposition
How punishment for violations of the quarantine in Azerbaijan turned into punitive measures
Ali Karimli, the leader of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA), said in mid-April that the government put him under "house arrest". But before that, he had his virtual communication with the outside world disconnected.
Karimli said in an interview with Meydan TV that his internet went down, his mobile phone stopped working, and his WhatsApp and Telegram accounts were "hacked" on 13 April.
"A live broadcast was scheduled for 10:30pm on 13 April. Fifteen minutes before the broadcast, the internet suddenly went down simultaneously on my computer, my phone and my wife's phone. A while later, our mobile phones stopped working as well, and I went offline completely. There was no mobile or internet connection, and this situation lasted until 10am. We spent the night without a connection. The internet came back at 10am, but was disconnected again several hours later," Karimli said.
He also added that there was no technical reason for the disconnection of his internet service. On 28 April, the opposition leader opened a case against his phone and internet services provider. However, a few days earlier, the provider had issued a statement saying that it was "not involved in the blocking of the mobile phone and internet services of the leader of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, Ali Karimli". The company suggested back then that the disconnection could be due to a significant load on the internet "in the days of the quarantine introduced because of coronavirus".
Without a right to go out
However, Karimli says, the matter did not end with the disconnection of their internet. After that day, a system was introduced in Azerbaijan whereby people needed to obtain SMS permission to leave their homes amid a special quarantine for coronavirus. His family members were not able to obtain that permission.
The rules of movement that were introduced in the country on 5 April meant that to go outside one needed to obtain permission by sending an SMS to a special phone numberIn the run-up to the Novruz holiday, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said in his 19 March address to the people on the occasion of the holiday that a quarantine would be introduced. He effectively pledged that the opposition, which he called the "fifth column", would be isolated.
"They are enemies. We should say it openly. It is not yet known what this disease will lead to. For this reason, there will be completely new rules of relationships during the disease period. Let everyone know about it. A state of emergency may also be declared at some point. In which case, the isolation of members of the fifth column will become a historical necessity," the president said back then.. This kind of a permit, Karimli says, would not arrive not only to his phone number, but also to the phone numbers of all members of his household.
"This is definitely a blockade. And it is not a coincidental blockade," Karimli says. He said the blockade was put in place on instructions from the head of state.
In the run-up to the Novruz holiday, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said in his 19 March address to the people that a quarantine would be introduced. He effectively pledged that the opposition, which he called the "fifth column", would be isolated.
"They are enemies. We should say it openly. It is not yet known what this disease will lead to. For this reason, there will be completely new rules of relationships during the disease period. Everyone should be aware of it. A state of emergency may also be declared at some point. In such a case, the isolation of members of the fifth column will become a historical necessity," the president said back then.
Arrests of opposition members a "historical necessity"
A total of 25 members of opposition parties and organizations have been arrested on charges of violating the quarantine in Azerbaijan so far. Yet, the detainees and their close ones argue that they did not violate any quarantine regulations.
Zafar Ahmadov, a member of the Coordinating Council of the Families of Political Prisoners, says that surveillance of opposition representatives continues.
"All members of the leaderships of the PFPA and the National Council are under surveillance, and people who visit their homes are arrested as soon as they leave their homes," Zafar Ahmadov told Meydan TV. "For this reason, everyone is trying to stay at home and not to go out if it is not essential to do so. However, that does not help either. According to information I have, many of those detained were taken away from their own homes, and all those detained outside, with the exception of one, had permission to go outside."
Fines imposed without court rulings are "unconstitutional measures"
Lawyer Samira Agayeva says that "unconstitutional measures" are being used in the country.
"Article 28 of the constitution says that everyone has a right to freedom of movement. Article 112 of the constitution says that in the event of a pandemic, epidemic or war, the president should first declare a state of emergency. Then, the Milli Majlis (Azerbaijan's parliament - editor's note) approves it. A state of emergency may be introduced only after being approved by the Milli Majlis. However, we see that quarantine measures are being developed by the Cabinet of Ministers and implemented by the Operational Headquarters. The Cabinet of Ministers does not have the authority to restrict citizens' freedom of movement," Samira Agayeva says.
The lawyer believes that fines are being imposed "without a court ruling".
"I have not heard yet that a citizen was given a copy of the ticket when a fine was imposed on them," she says.
Samira Agayeva says that the 30-day arrest of almost all of the opposition members detained was groundless and that "most of the trials were conducted formally".
Samira Agayeva also wonders why the courts "prefer" imposing administrative arrests, although they could have applied other administrative penalties, such as fines.
"The police detained many of them right at the threshold of their house. In addition, there are other procedural violations here as well. For example, they took Faig Amirli, assistant to the chairman of the Popular Front Party, away when he was leaving his house, but they did not inform his family about it at all. His wife even called the hotline 102. She contacted relevant agencies. It was not until after Faig Amirli's trial that she learned that he was arrested for violating the quarantine."
The lawyer argues that procedural regulations were also violated in the cases of opposition members arrested. "Their defense lawyers were not invited to the court, nor were they given enough time to develop defense tactics. The trials were conducted in a hurry," Samira Agayev says, listing regulations violated.
"Punishment" for visiting Karimli
Journalists who visited Ali Karimli's house were also persecuted during the quarantine.
Unidentified men beat journalist Teymur Karimov after he left the house of the opposition party leader. The journalist said after the incident that he had his video camera broken and the memory card with video of his interview with Karimli taken away from him.
Police detained one more journalist, Tazakhan Miralamli, after he left Karimli's house and took him to the Khatai district police department in Baku.
"When I left his house, I noticed that I was under surveillance. I signaled to the driver of the car waiting for me to go, and I decided to walk. I walked slowly. There is a school there near the house. Near the school, three plainclothes police officers got out of a car that was following me and told me to get in the car. As soon as I got in the car, they took my phone away from me," Tazakhan Miralamli told Meydan TV.
The journalist was taken to the police at about 6pm and released at about 11pm.
"Revenge on the opposition"
Giorgi Gogia, the Human Rights Watch director for the South Caucasus, says that "we need to touch on several points when it comes to the use of measures by the Azerbaijani government to fight coronavirus as a means of putting pressure on opposition representatives".
"First, we see here that the government made it possible for coronavirus-related measures to be used to take revenge on the opposition.
Second, Human Rights Watch has repeatedly said that most of the persons were arrested on administrative charges and that the administrative legal proceedings were conducted superficially.
It is obvious that the commitments that the Azerbaijani government was supposed to ensure were not honored during the trial, which took place immediately after the arrest of these persons. That is, during their arrest or during the investigation or the trial, these persons do not have a lawyer or their lawyers are appointed by the state. In many cases, these individuals are denied the right to choose a lawyer. All these issues worry HRW," Gogia said.
He said that Azerbaijan is the only South Caucasus country where pressure is exerted on the opposition as part of methods used to fight coronavirus.
"Human Rights Watch has recorded abuse of the fight against coronavirus by the governments of different countries of the world.
"My work covers the three South Caucasus countries, and I have not seen other countries use measures to fight coronavirus to silence opposition activists," the human rights expert said.
Giorgi Gogia stressed that arrests should be seen as the last resort during the pandemic.
"Arrests during the pandemic may lead to the spread of the virus. Some UN agencies and the Council of Europe have recommended that arrests be considered the last option."
Azerbaijan announced on 18 May that it was easing the quarantine. The regulation under which one needed SMS permission to go outside was repealed.
The Azerbaijani opposition, however, has no hope that the easing of the quarantine will be followed by the "easing" of their persecution.
"As long as the quarantine continues, the Azerbaijani government will also continue to exert pressure on people and persecute them. There will be arrests, too. However, frankly speaking, I do not think that they will end when the quarantine ends," Karimli said.
On 18 May, the day the quarantine was eased, it was reported that one more member of the opposition was detained. Niyamaddin Ahmadov, an activist from the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA), was to be released on 16 May after 30 days of administrative arrest to which he was sentenced "for violating the quarantine". However, on the same day, fresh charges - "financing of terrorism" - were filed against the opposition member. He has now been sentenced to a measure of restraint in the form of arrest for a period of four months.
/Produced with the help of the Russian Language News Exchange
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