Azerbaijani human rights defenders sentenced to long prison terms
A court in Baku has sentenced Anar Mammadli, chairman of EMDS (Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center) to 5.5 years of imprisonment.
His deputy Bashir Suleymanli was sentenced to 3.5 years and arrested in the courtroom. The head of the Public Association for International Cooperation of Volunteers Elnur Mammadov was given the same term with 2 years on probation.
They were found guilty of tax evasion, illegal business activities, abuse of power, large-scale embezzlement and forgery.
The investigation was opened in late October 2013. On December 17, Mr. Mammadli was taken into custody, while the other two were under house arrest. The actual reason for his arrest are his critical findings on the rigged presidential election in Azerbaijan in October 2013. Amnesty International considers Anar Mammadli to be a prisoner of conscience.
The criminal case against the EMDS head and two other activists was trumped up fabricated and pursued the purposes of punishing the defendants because of their civic activity. This was the leitmotif of lawyers and concluding statements of the accused.
Anar Mammadli’s lawyer Elchin Sadigov said that the case itself was opened illegally. According to him, the Investigative Department for Grave Crimes of the Prosecutor General’s Office did not have the right to initiate criminal proceedings relating to tax offenses.
The seizure of EMDS documents aimed at verifying tax records was also illegal. “This form of tax audits is not provided by the law. Tax audits, under the law, can be of two types – desktop and field ones and should be carried out by the tax authorities,” said Mr. Sadigov.
Moreover, he said, if violations are detected, the tax authorities should first offer to repay the tax debt and only when it fails to be done, a criminal case is opened.
On the other hand, Sadigov mentions the groundless claims about the alleged non-payment of VAT, as under the law, grants are exempt from this tax.
Grants provided to NGOs by the Council for State Support are not subject to VAT. “The biggest NGO in the country, the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, also does not pay VAT,” said the lawyer.
Charges relating to illegal business activities are also unjustified, according to Mr. Sadigov.
Illegal business is out if the question, says he, because the defendants were not engaged in activities that aimed to bring commercial profit.
Election observation and voter awareness-raising cannot be considered business.
Of the 20 victims of alleged embezzlement, only one person, Hasan Hasanov, reported an abuse.
But his words were refuted by other victims and witnesses, to which he referred.
As for the charges under Article 308.2 (abuse of power, entailing grave consequences, or committed in order to influence the outcome of elections), according to Sadigov, they reveal the true cause of the prosecution of the human rights defenders. However, election monitoring activities cannot be viewed as influencing the voting results.
Sadigov urged the court to acquit all the defendants and admit a violation of Mammadli’s rights guaranteed by Articles 5 (right to liberty), 10 (freedom of expression) and 18 (restrictions on rights must not exceed limits under the Convention) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Mammadov’s lawyer Jawad Javadli supported his colleague. Moreover, in his speech he focused on the unsubstantiated allegations of not paying VAT, which became the basis for launching a criminal case. Javadli also urged the court to acquit the defendants.
Mammadli’s other lawyer, Irada Javadova, agreeing with arguments of her colleagues, noted that the court had questioned 20 victims and 21 witnesses, and only one victim testified against the accused.
Anar Mammadli said that after the restoration of its independence Azerbaijan could have done much to achieve the values proclaimed 96 years ago by the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic. However, persecution of people for freedom of expression and association shows that the 22 years of independence were a time of missed opportunities.
He further drew attention to the forthcoming presidency of Azerbaijan in the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers.
“The other day, the Atletico Madrid players were wearing T-shirts saying “Azerbaijan – Land of Fire” during the Champions League final match and it attracted the world’s attention to Azerbaijan. But I fear that by the end of its presidency in the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan will be known as the “land of political prisoners,” said Anar Mammadli.
He further stated that the criminal case was instituted to punish civil activism and independent monitoring of elections.
“It is impossible for the organization conducting monitoring of elections since 2001 to be a criminal organization, as the investigation is trying to depict us,” said the human rights defender.
He also stressed that in 2008 the Election Monitoring Center’s registration was canceled and a new organization was not registered by the Ministry of Justice. Therefore Mammadli had to receive grants as an individual.
At the same time the organization’s activities were transparent. It received 480 thousand mantas of grants. These funds were exempt from VAT and some other payments. Nevertheless, Mammadli had to pay taxes amounting to 12 thousand manats from his own salary.
Mammadli said the charges in influencing the outcome of the presidential election are absurd, since they may only relate to members of election commissions, state and municipal officials.
Suleymanli and Mamedov also denied the charges and called on the court to acquit them.