18 Jul 2006
Verdict against Azerbaijan youth raises concern
A court in Azerbaijan has handed down heavy prison sentences to three leaders of a youth organization for an alleged conspiracy to overthrow the country’s president. The OSCE, as well as the British and US embassies, have voiced concern about the judicial proceedings.
By Shahin Abbasov and Khadija Ismailova for EurasiaNet
A Baku court found Ruslan Bashirli, the former head of Yeni Fikir, and his deputies, Ramin Tagiyev and Said Nuri, guilty of trying to overthrow President Ilham Aliyev’s administration under the terms of Article 278 of the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan. The sentences were handed down on 12 July during an unscheduled court sitting not attended by defense lawyers, media representatives or the families of the accused. Bashirli received the lengthiest prison term – seven years. Tagiyev was given a four-year sentence and Nuri received a suspended sentence of five years.
During the trial, the prosecution accused the Norwegian Embassy, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a US nongovernmental organization (NGO), and former US presidential advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski of instructing Yeni Fikir members on subversive political tactics. Nelson C Ledsky, NDI’s regional director for Eurasia, characterized the accusation as "false," adding that the NGO had "no involvement" with Bashirli.
The youth activists were arrested during the run-up to Azerbaijan’s November 2005 parliamentary elections. Opposition parties portrayed the cases against the youth activists as a government attempt to silence criticism and to prevent possible mass protests. Youth groups in Georgia and Ukraine played key roles in organizing demonstrations in 2003 and 2004 respectively that forced the incumbent governments in both states from power. Yeni Fikir is loosely associated with the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, one of the country’s largest opposition parties.
Bashirli was arrested last 3 August after a video was handed over to prosecutors that depicted the youth activist taking US$2,000 "for the development of democracy" from a person later identified by the prosecutor’s office as an alleged agent of the Armenian security services. A fellow Yeni Fikir member, who traveled with Bashirli to Tbilisi where the meeting occurred, served as prosecutors’ chief source for the alleged connection with the Armenia.
In comments to Eurasianet, Osman Kazimov, the Yeni Fikir group’s defense lawyer, argued that prosecutors never proved their case, and that the government staged the trial to discredit the Azerbaijani opposition by linking them with the Armenian special services.
On 13 July, the Baku mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued a statement that expressed "concern" over the conduct of the trial. "Notwithstanding the extreme severity of [the] sentences which were handed down with inadequate notice and in the absence of [the] defendants’ advocates, the process leading to their arraignment and the proceedings at trial fell short of international standards in upholding the rule of law," the statement read.
The OSCE mission called on the government "to take urgent and appropriate steps to fully ensure the rights of the individual during proceedings that are conducted in accordance with the rule of law."
The British and US embassies echoed those concerns. In a 13 July statement, the US embassy noted that "indicators existed that the defendants’ rights to equal protection before the law, presumption of innocence and an impartial hearing were not respected." The British embassy stressed the importance of ensuring that any appeal is conducted according to due process, and noted that it would continue to follow the Yeni Fikir case "closely."
Prosecutors insist that the trial was conducted in accordance with international and national laws, noting that the accused were given defense lawyers and that, while initial sittings of the court were closed for "national security concerns," later sessions had been open. "Bashirli and his deputies have been convicted because their crimes have been proven. If they do not agree with the court’s decision, they can use their right to appeal to a higher court," said Vugar Aliyev, spokesperson for the Azerbaijan Chief Prosecutor’s Office.
Those close to the defendants, however, believe there is virtually no chance that the verdicts against the trio can be reversed on appeal. "The court sentenced him now, but the government did it from the very beginning," said Bashirli’s fiancée, who asked only to be identified by her first name, Vusala. Reporters from state television and the pro-government Leader TV encouraged Vusala to announce that she had ended her relationship with Bashirli, she claimed. She continues to defend Bashirli, however, asserting that the youth activist "loves Azerbaijan and would never betray the motherland."
Bashirli’s mother, who has not seen her son since his arrest, also defended her son. "They tortured him and did not even provide him with medical treatment unless international organizations protested his bad treatment. They beat him to get testimony against [opposition leader] Ali Kerimli and his Popular Front Party. Ruslan refused to do so," Zemfira Bashirli said. "This is not a country to live in. Ruslan wanted to improve things in the country and fell victim to his struggle."
Representatives of the Popular Front Party, which has continued to support Yeni Fikir, argue that the trial was intended to scare Azerbaijani youth out of becoming politically active. Ramin Hasanov, head of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party’s youth organization, denied that the trial was politically motivated. In a 12 July interview with the Voice of America, Hasanov maintained that "the court just gave its assessment of the crime."
Khadija Ismayilova is a freelance journalist based in Baku.