The letter was issued one month after Mammadov’s arrest on February 4, 2013, along with another prominent opposition leader, Tofiq Yaqublu. Mammadov chairs the opposition REAL movement. The two were charged with organizing mass disorder in relation to protests in the town of Ismayilli, 150 kilometers northwest of the capital. Both opposition leaders could face up to three years in jail if found guilty.
Mammadov states in the letter that he visited Ismayilli briefly at daytime, when things were calm, between two nights of violent clashes between locals and the police in order “to observe the situation ..., now, Azerbaijani authorities accuse me of organizing that spontaneous, but unfortunately violent protest against corruption...” Many observers consider the arrests to be politically motivated as REAL has nominated Mammadov for the 2013 Presidential elections appointed on October, while Yaqublu is deputy chairman of the opposition Musavat Party.
On March 14, the prison term of both men was extended by two months. Mammadov’s lawyer stated that “the investigators fear that Ilgar Mammadov could run away, but the reality is that investigation cannot present any real evidence to justify the charge.”
March has also seen several arrests of activists in the opposition NIDA Citizen’s Movement. On March 30, a court in Baku ordered two board members of NIDA to be held for up to three months in pre-trial detention. Two alumni of the Central European University, Rashadat Akhundov and Uzeyir Mammadli, faced charges of illegal weapons possession and up to eight years in prison if found guilty.
Four other NIDA activists were arrested for alleged possession of illegal drugs and weapons before a March 10 protest over the noncombat deaths of conscripts in the Azerbaijani army. NIDA Board member Rashad Hasanov and members Mahammad Azizov, Bakhtiyar Guliyev, and Shahin Novruzlu were arrested in early March on charges of possession of drugs, arms and explosives in their houses. They were kept in the Ministry of National Security (MNS) and filmed under pressure giving testimonies against the movement’s board members. Their families believe that the drugs and ordnance was planted by MNS.
All six members of NIDA were active on social networks, especially Facebook, calling on supporters to join the protest held on March 10, 2013 under the slogan “Let’s put an end to soldier’s deaths!” Hundreds of youth and civil activists gathered to protest the non-combat death of a military conscript and alleged abuse of conscripts. Human rights activists stated that Azerbaijani police used excessive force to disperse the peaceful protest in downtown Baku. Police used water cannons and teargas against the protesters who offered no resistance.
“The Azerbaijani government shows no shame with its blatant trampling on people’s fundamental right to express their grievances peacefully,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately release those detained and investigate police behavior.”
According to Ali Huseynli, chairman of the parliamentary committee on legal policy and state building, the police acted in accordance with European standards during the protest and had grounds to use special tools to disperse the protesters. The protest “… was supported and instigated by anti-Azerbaijan forces abroad and the radical opposition. Of course, those forces abroad are providing financial and technical support,” Huseynli stated to APA agency.
On March 30, the NIDA Movement issued a statement defining the recent arrests as the “authorities’ tool of repression and influence against NIDA” and demanded the “immediate release of illegally detained members.” The statement says that NIDA “does not fear these arrests” and “will continue our struggle with more determination.” NIDA’s manifest explicitly declines violence and encourages non-violent methods of struggle in its activities.
In recent weeks, media has also reported on the detention of Dashqin Malikov, a young member of Azerbaijan’s People’s Front Party who was also charged with illegal drug possession. In addition, the recently elected leader of the opposition Musavat Party branch in Nakhchivan has been hospitalized after being severely beaten by unknown attackers.
Political observers consider this year’s pre-election environment to be different from previous ones and predict an increase of social and political tension in the country ahead of the elections in October. Political analyst Zafar Guliyev thinks this year is risky for the current government, as it is headed for elections without strong external support from international partners and international organizations, while the number of domestic protesters is increasing. The recent repressive actions of the authorities, who show a tendency to declare any opponent as an enemy of state, could therefore be interpreted as a sign of perceived weakness on part of the Azerbaijani regime.